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Alternative Assessments for K-3 in Berkeley County

State law provides four options for meeting the annual assessment requirement: standardized testing, the public school testing program (WESTEST), portfolio review, and alternative assessment. Homeschooled children in the lowest grades, however, do not have access to the full menu of choices. The WESTEST is available only for students in grades 3-8 and grade 10. And while standardized testing works well for many students, it is often not the best choice for young children. As WVHEA’s State Testing Coordinator Mary Ellen Sullivan notes,

It is well known that standardized tests do a poor job of evaluating achievement in young children. This is because the scores on such tests depend not just on what kids know, but also on a lot of interfering factors like the student's interest and attention, state of physical or emotional well-being at the moment of test administration, and variations in exposure to materials as compared to the norm group. These factors tend to become easier to control as children get older, but they cause young children's scores to have a huge amount of "measurement error," and scores should be interpreted accordingly. Other methods of assessment are likely to provide more useful information.

Portfolio review is often a good choice for assessing young children’s academic progress, but some homeschool families who want to use this option have trouble creating portfolios. It can also be quite a challenge to find a certified teacher willing to evaluate homeschool portfolios.

Encouraged by a teacher acquaintance, Berkeley County homeschool parent Cindy Biedler began to explore the possibility of using another type of assessment for the youngest homeschool students. The K-3 Informal Math and Reading Assessments are diagnostic tools developed by WV teachers and the WVDE; they are used in some counties to help teachers “monitor and adjust” the instruction. The WVDE emphasizes that these tests are not part of the statewide assessment program. Rather, they are described as “quick assessments of specific mathematics, reading or pre-reading skills, designed to be given either one-on-one or in small groups, 2-3 times a year as needed.”

Cindy, who has a long-standing relationship with her county school board office (she helps with the computer work for county-wide school competitions), requested permission to administer the informal assessments to homeschool students in her county. She met with Berkeley County Assistant Superintendent Aliveto, who granted her request to use the informal assessments as an alternative academic assessment. Cindy then took the tester training, a one-day program.

“These assessments,” says Cindy, “align with state mastery of grade level skills in reading and math. While homeschoolers are not legally bound to meet this criteria, the skills are very similar to the ones that might be tested on nationally normed standardized tests or evaluated in a portfolio assessment.” (WV Content Standards and Objectives (CSOs) for each grade are available at http://wvde.state.wv.us/csos/, from your county board of education or the state Department of Education.) Different skills are assessed at different times during the year so the test questions are different on each part of the test. 

Cindy cites several advantages to using the informal assessments:

·         No high-stakes testing. The child’s progress is assessed throughout the year, not just in one testing session.

·         Parents receive explicit descriptions of the skills and knowledge examined in the tests. This information should help allay concerns about what grade level test to use for a child.

·         Parents won’t have to hunt for an evaluator, create a portfolio of the child’s work for the five subject areas, or seek approval from the county for this alternative assessment.

·         Scoring criteria is clear and unambiguous, particularly for the reading assessment.

·         Each testing session is brief.

·         Parents receive the results immediately after testing.

The county provides all the materials, free of charge. “I don't charge a fee,” Cindy says. “I believe the Lord has blessed my family so that I can be a resource to others. When asked what I charge, I simply tell people to consider what their family can afford to pay.” Cindy will conduct the assessments in her home; parents may not be in the room during the assessment. 

There are a couple of departures from the usual alternative assessment protocol. For alternative assessments, the law requires:

(iv) The child completes an alternative academic assessment of proficiency that is mutually agreed upon by the parent or legal guardian and the county superintendent. Criteria for acceptable progress shall be mutually agreed upon by the same parties;

Because the county has already approved Cindy to administer these tests, parents do not need to seek approval from the county superintendent to use them. The law also requires that the parent submit the assessment results to the county superintendent. With these informal assessments, however, Cindy herself must submit the assessment results to the county to maintain the integrity of the service.

Cindy does not know whether homeschoolers in other counties will be able to use the informal assessments, but she is willing to work with families and counties to investigate this possibility. To learn more, email Cindy Biedler at biedler@earthlink.net  or call 229-3640.       

— Betsy Kocsis

                                                                                                                                               

October 2005

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