by Res Peters (12.10.07)

A match, a mousetrap, a Post-it. Each is useful for a singular purpose and remarkably simple. While more complicated versions have attempted to render obsolete these minimalist inventions, each has withstood the test of time.

But is minimalism always most effective. Minimalist or "New Age" music, for example, when exclusively played to mice has rendered them not only incapable of completing a familiar maze, it has caused them to attack and to even kill one another. More complex classical music played under the same conditions, caused mice to shorten their time in exiting the maze. Similarly, plants not only grew away from the sound of minimalist music, they withered and died, while plants exposed to classical music grew toward the sound and thrived. In these tests, surprisingly, minimalist music was even more destructive to mice and plants than silence. The relentless repetition of minimalist sound was lethal.

What about the minimalist impact on education. Historically, at the time of the American Revolution, our country had the highest literacy rate in the world, above ninety percent for both men and women. Second only to the Bible, the New England Primer was the next best seller in the colonies. By 1776, five million copies of the primer were in circulation to a population of four million.

The primer included large words, religious lessons in morality, and extensive questions and answers for memorization. Taught at colonial kitchen tables, the primer was responsible for the literacy of our nation, supported by the Bible and the classics. As children labored, played, worshipped, and were tutored at the side of their parents, learning was woven into the fabric of everyday life application. For this literate culture, it is not surprising that admission to Harvard required fluency in both Latin and Greek. By contemporary standards, the educational method was minimalist, but the content was vast.

Today's public education takes a different approach. Rather than teaching a whole body of knowledge, the content centers on a collection of minimal standards for which the students must demonstrate proficiency. Classroom instruction focuses on preparing all students to pass numerous ISAT competency tests. Because the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) funding requirements are based on student proficiency, teachers must focus instruction on those students who are not proficient. With a wide array of curricular choices, computer programs, and support services, the methods are vast, but the content remains minimalist.

What will happen when sufficient numbers of students do not meet the current minimal standards. The time-tested mousetrap offers a lesson on reduction. If any one of its six component parts is missing, the mousetrap will not work at all. And should the bar be lowered on either the tests or on the standards themselves, there is a point at which that system will become as useless as a mousetrap without a spring.

But the home educator, much like the colonists, typically chooses a different approach, teaching a whole body of knowledge with real life application and often integrating content areas. Rather than teaching to a specific test, reasoning and broader application are stressed.

For academic evaluation, there are many types of standardized tests. IQ tests measure potential. Aptitude tests evaluate strengths and weaknesses. Competency tests, such as the ISAT, measure the specific content that has been taught. For evaluating home educated students, the most appropriate test is the achievement test, which measures development in academic content areas.

To assess both the knowledge and reasoning skills of these students, ICHE offers private, nationally standardized testing on the Iowa Tests. These tests are among the most accurate achievement tests for evaluating home educated students as they test the current grade level, plus a grade and a half beyond.

The standardization process assures that the test has first been given to a demographically representative population group to determine the validity of the test questions and accurate scoring. A nationally standardized test uses a demographically representative population from across the nation to run this study.

When taking this test, the homeschooling community is a uniquely demographic population. Factors which typically affect the test scores of the general population, but which do not affect homeschool scores are income, gender, race, teacher certification and education levels of the parent, and the degree of governmental regulation in the state. Typically, these are two-parent families with one income, the mother at home full-time, more children, a more extensive library, more computers, and more volunteer involvement in the community and in church. And for decades, home educated students as a group have scored 25-35 percentile points above the national average.

But the individual scoring report for the test can often be confusing. Percentile rankings describe the student's score in relation to the others who took the test. A score of the 53rd percentile indicates that the student scored higher than 53 out of 100 students taking the test. This would be an average, not a failing score. Because of the bell curve, the middle range of the test extends from 25th to the 75th percentile. And as a group, ICHE composite test scores fall typically in the high range, between the 80th and the 84th percentiles.

In addition to percentile rankings, grade equivalent scores are also provided. This is the most widely misunderstood score. A score of 72 indicates seventh grade, second month. For a third grade student with this score, this means that a seventh-grade, second-month student would perform on the third grade test the same as the third grader. It does not mean that the third grader would perform on the seventh grade test the same as the average seventh grader. These scores are best used to track growth, and not as an indicator of grade level performance. These scores should be generally considered accurate only for one to two years beyond grade level, and not an indicator to skip a grade.

Testing is a valuable measurement that often validates what you already know about your child's strengths and weaknesses. But it can also provide a window into more subtle areas of your child's leaning process, clarify curriculum selection, and help chart direction for the future. For most students, standardized testing is an acquired skill, and providing this opportunity for annual practice is prudent in preparation for future high stakes tests, such as college entrance exams.

Test scores are confidential and your private property. ICHE-tested high school students with qualifying scores are nominated to Who's Who Among American High School Students and designated as Summa Cum Laude Scholars. They also may qualify your student for dual enrollment participation. And should your homeschool be legally challenged, your test scores may be used as convincing evidence in court.

Thankfully, home educated students cannot be required to take the ISAT. The provisions of NCLB prohibit states from compelling home educated students to take the state assessment test.

What, then, will you choose for your family as you navigate the maze? The complexity of the symphony, or the minimalism of the broken mousetrap. Like the colonists, keep the method simple and the content rich. Teach character and a whole body of knowledge and you will prepare your children well for the unexpected obstacles and turns in their path.

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