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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published March 03 2013

North Dakota home-schoolers fight testing requirements

GRAND FORKS – After Laurie Kraemer and her husband, Philip, adopted their daughter, Rose, they could tell by her delayed speech that she would have a harder time taking school tests.

“Testing is hard for all people who don’t perform well when under pressure,” said Laurie Kraemer, explaining why the Grand Forks couple decided on home schooling.

Rose, now 7, is among the hundreds of home-schooled children in North Dakota who would be released from taking standardized tests under a bill the state Senate passed last month.

North Dakota, one of a handful of states requiring high-stakes testing for home-schoolers, has long been known for having tougher requirements compared to the rest of the nation. This bill is one step toward easing its reputation and giving home-school parents more freedom, said Theresa Deckert, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Home School Association.

“I think it’s a good start,” she said. “I really don’t think it’s the final product (we’re aiming for), but somehow we have to start at least making some sort of exception for testing.”

Home-schooling has gained a presence in the state since legalization in 1988. At least 1,900 students were home-schooled in the state last year, the first year the state Department of Public Instruction began tracking the information.

Deckert, who has been heavily involved in home-schooling events and fields calls from the public, said there are likely more students. Registration is only required for students between the ages of 7 and 16, she said.

A choice

The bill allowing home-schooling parents to opt out of testing if they have a bachelor’s degree, pass a teacher’s equivalency exam or have a teaching certificate was drafted by District 10 Republican Chairman Paul Henderson, of Calvin.

It was introduced by three Republicans each in the Senate and House, including Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River; Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo; Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo; and Rep. Blair Thoreson, Fargo.

Henderson, who has home-schooled his six children, said he wanted a bill that would allow parents a choice. “It’s not that we’re against testing across the board; (we just use) a different system.”

There was validity to the law’s restrictions when home-schooling was first legalized, he said, but today, young parents home-schooling their children are proving to be quite successful.

Research shows the test scores of home-schooled students here are very similar to home-schooled students in other states, so the testing requirement doesn’t improve their grades, he said.

“It’s the teaching style that works – most of the teaching styles in home- schooling are performance-based outcomes,” he said. “That’s why we do that on a daily basis.”

Even a parent’s education doesn’t guarantee the child will do better on tests. Parents who home-school must hold a high school diploma or higher, and an assessment of their academic backgrounds found students didn’t perform better when their parents had doctorates, according to research by Brian Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute.

Requirements

North Dakota – along with Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Massachusetts – is considered a “highly regulated” state, requiring more from parents compared to the rest of the nation, according to the Home School Legal Defense Association, a national advocacy group.

This means the states require home-schoolers to participate in standardized tests – North Dakota requires testing in grades 4, 6, 8 and 10 – or professional evaluations. The states may also require parents to be qualified as teachers, official approval of curriculum or home visits by education officials.

North Dakota is alone in requiring parents home-schooling children with special needs to develop a teaching plan with their school districts, which is checked on annually, according to Deckert.

Minnesota and South Dakota are considered by HSLDA to be “moderately regulated,” meaning they also require testing or professional evaluation.

“There’s some states where if you’re breathing you can home-school, and that works just as well,” Henderson said.

Ten states have virtually no regulation, not requiring parents to even contact education officials, according to HSLDA.

Challenges

In North Dakota, when a home-schooled student scores lower on a standardized test than 50 percent of students nationwide, his or her parents must be monitored for at least one additional school year until his or her score is at least at the 50 percent mark, though a school official said the frequency depends on the child’s needs. A child whose test score is lower than the bottom 30 percent nationally must be evaluated for learning issues.

Kraemer, who home-schooled all seven of her children starting the year it became legal, said she used to spend a lot of time worrying about the tests, knowing her children weren’t necessarily ready for them.

“I don’t think it’s quite so bad now, but I wanted to spend more time teaching for learning than teaching for the test,” she said.

Out-of-state workers moving to North Dakota because of the oil boom have found these rules particularly difficult, according to the state Department of Public Instruction and Deckert. Many home-school children because they only stay in an area for a few years and move on, Deckert said.

“We want people to come in with their families and add some stability to the west,” said Henderson. “I think this law change will make (the state) more friendly to some of the families.”

Better relations

State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said she’s optimistic that the House will pass Henderson’s bill and wants her department to move forward with home schoolers.

“The Department of Public Instruction is often seen by people as very regulatory, or the watchdog of education,” she said. “I don’t view my role or the department’s role as (either one). I view our role as a support and service-oriented agency to assist educators.”

Baesler said she’s appointed a liaison to attend the annual North Dakota Home School Association convention, held this year in Grand Forks from March 15 to 16 at the Alerus Center, as a way to better communicate between the two groups.

The past relationship was “stressed” and “a little confrontational,” she said.

“I believe our goals are the same – to ensure our students are receiving the education, information and support they need in order to be successful in college or in their career,” she said.