Standardized Tests: Psst . . . Your Agenda is Showing

by | Jun 18, 2013 | Homeschool | 13 comments

My kids are homeschooled.  The reasons I began homeschooling are various and ignoble and you can read more about them here.  But not a year goes by when I don’t find another big reason to like it.


The most recent came as I was administering the Terra Nova standardized tests to my kids this year.  In California, private homeschoolers (that is, those not attached to a public homeschool charter school) are not required to take standardized tests.  But our curriculum provider (Mother of Divine Grace) recommends it, and I have found the tests to be a useful tool at the end of each year for me as a teacher to see the areas in which my students are having difficulty, which has sometimes come as a surprise.  I’m then able to focus on weak areas a bit over the summer.  Alternately, I’ve had a student do quite well in a subject *I* had thought that he had struggled with during the year.  And it’s nice to get to see the progress they make from year to year.  (The children never see or hear about their test results.  That information is useful only to grownups.)

I am the proctor of the tests, so it’s also an interesting window for me into what they’re teaching the kids in “regular” school.  (Since most school curriculums are geared towards preparing the kids to do well on these tests.)  I’ve seen the younger grade tests a few times now and there are some predictably silly questions on there, like which of these items can be recycled?  Or which of these things is pollution?  Or something about how teachers are the super duperest people in the community.  Fine.  Do I think those are foundational concepts that are integrally important to the knowledge base of second graders?  No.  But we DO recycle.  And I AM against old car batteries in meadows.  And all the teachers I know are lovely people.

But this one, from the fourth grade test, really bugged me:


          The most important reason to car-pool is to
               o   save money on gas
               o   make cars last longer
               o   cause less air pollution     
               o   get to work faster

I’m assuming they want the air pollution answer <cough, hippies> but seriously, I don’t know the answer because: what a nonsensically worded question.  The “most important reason” is obviously going to depend on each particular person’s particular situation.  If you have a limited income, one of the first two reasons would probably be most important to you.  If you’re a guy with a ponytail, perhaps the third choice is going to be most important to you.  If you’re like my husband, you’re driving around LA in the type of car that usually has an Obama sticker on it because it means you can get in the carpool lane and get home an hour earlier to see your kids before they’re asleep for the night.  He thinks that’s most important.  But, “NO CHILDREN, do let the good folks at McGraw-Hill tell you what you think is important.”  It’s not logical and it’s not impartial and it’s not a good question.  And this is what they are teaching our kids . . . 

“Truth” is subjective, but “importance” is mandated by the government.

And then . . . there’s this . . .

One of the questions in the reading comprehension (I think) section of Jack’s test featured a black and white drawing done by a child in China, “to show her concerns for the future of the environment.”  It’s basically an imagined dystopian future with looming pencil-drawn buildings everywhere, and some people in the middle surrounding a solitary tree . . . a tree under a glass dome.  It won a contest sponsored by the United Nations.

Jack was supposed to look at the drawing and answer some predictably biased questions about whether he should be concerned about this happening to him.  (I’m pretty sure they think he should be.)

And THAT is what the people who are in charge of assessing the basic knowledge-level of this country’s fifth graders want our children to think about the world.

Forget the gross human rights violations, forget the systematic religious persecution, forget all the evidence of what happens to the economies and social structures of countries whose birth rates fall as precipitously as have China’s, no, we need our fifth graders to focus on whether China has enough downtown trees.

And if my fifth grader took this test at a school, would I have heard about it?

But I did hear about it.  Because I was sitting in the seat next to him.  At our dining room table.  He couldn’t wait for me to see it, because he has learned to be a discerning reader and look for agendas.  I am so grateful that we are able to homeschool and share moments like this that we can turn into big picture learning opportunities.  And have a laugh at those poor saps who write these tests.  Together.



  1. T.K.

    Sometimes, when my children and I have trouble figuring out an especially difficult Algebra problem, I have them find a similar problem whose answer is given in the back of the book and we try to determine how the authors found that answer by, in a way, working it backwards. It can be a labor intensive way of learning the process, but the process does become more clear and they do not soon forget how it was worked out.

    It seems to me that you have used something similar to parse the intentions of the test's authors. Good for you, Keep up the good work.
    My husband does that too, with advertisements, asking the kids "So, what do these guys want to sell you?" It is very effective and they learn quickly to see the manipulative motive behind the ad.

    Just think, what must home life be like for these test makers, living with such fears and instilling them in their children (if they have any). I would feel sorry for them, if they were not doing the same to so many other peoples children.

  2. Mary @ Better Than Eden

    Wow. We do the CAT test but haven't gotten past 3rd grade. I haven't noticed anything so blatantly ideological yet. Ridiculous. I wonder how many of the teachers feel about this? And I'm assuming they are now forced to cover this as part of their curriculum so that the children can answer these questions "correctly." Interesting to note that this is from a company called "New Earth"…wonder who is behind and funding them…

  3. Kim

    I'm familiar with terra nova and we have them here. The catholic schools are required to give the same tests so its just not in public. But its just not the tests, its stupid questions in the books and regular tests too. Our kids books from school are brought home and we go through them. I do remember once –since I wrote it down– a math question that was inferring to only having 2 kids. It is in there. There is an agenda, I agree. But, i jut think home school or public/catholic/whatever that you have to be on top of it and aware that there really is an agenda. there should be an ongoing discussion. My husband is the one who will write notes on the papers saying something like "this is stupid and offensive" to send back to the teachers. Its a fine line since I want them to respect people but also be aware of that it really is garbage. Anyway—yeah, I agree. But, I still don't know what I am going to do for next year with my daughter.

    • Kendra Tierney

      You make a great point that there's no reason that all types of schooling parents can't address these issues. And I'm sure that they do. I was just surprised at how blatant it was, and what an empirically lousy question that one was. I didn't know I'd need to introduce the concepts of logic and reasoning in order to refute the questions on standardized tests. And honestly if I hadn't seen it for myself I don't know if I would have believed it!

  4. Abby S.

    It's sad that so much time, I presume, gets taken up in school preparing kids for these kinds of silly questions. I really like it when homeschooling (or just sensible parenting) is a chance to take a stand against widespread nonsense. And, coincidentally, all the teachers I know are also lovely people!

  5. Nanacamille

    When you and your sister were in public school 1982 to 1997 the school district didn't have to be nearly so politically correct and there weren't so many standardized tests. All kids were tested in the 2nd grade and put in the correct teaching level. You could teach to the highest level and not to the lowest. Smart kids were pushed forward and the slower learners pulled up to standards. Every child was helped equally to be the best learner he/she could be. It's such a shame that education has changed so drastically and I think for the worse.
    I am impressed with you ladies who have taken on the task of schooling your own children and instilling in them not only knowledge but also morality and ethics.

  6. Elizabeth C

    Wait until the kids get to the PSAT and SAT. We went to one of IEW's seminars on 'how to take and write for the SAT'. It was mind blowing.

    Basically, the kids and us mommies were told that a panel of 9 women would read and rate the written sections of the SAT. These 9 would be liberal, VERY LIBERAL.

    Truthfully, who knows if the panel would really be all women. I do think that the questions would lean towards a liberal agenda. Thus, they would be fishing for response that that agrees with it.

    • Anonymous

      As a former college board employee I can assure you that is not true at all. The essay is read by 2 to 3 readers mainly current and former teachers. The tests are scanned and sent randomly to readers and are evaluated independently not in a panel. The written section is only evaluated by 3 people if there is a large discrepancy between the first two assigned scores. The readers may skew toward female since more teachers are female but there are plenty of male readers. As far as the questions go old editions of the test are published so you can review them and evaluate them yourself. There are no right answers to the essays it's evaluated on how well the essay is written regardless of the "side" taken on an issue.

  7. Anonymous

    There are a lot of horribly written questions like the car-pooling example. My sixth grade public school students tear apart the tests in our curriculum. The students are old enough to understand that you can argue a case for several of the answers but also still pretty literal in their interpretation of the questions. Test days usually involve several conversations that go something like this
    student: "It says select the best answer but couldn't this choice and this choice both be correct?"
    me: "Yes, I agree that is a horrible question. I didn't write this test, the county wants you select 'C.'"

    Test can be valuable and the questions do not have to be poorly written. It is important to understand how our actions affect our environment, but it seems to be taking up too much of the school curriculum. I think understanding that environmental impact is only one factor in most family decisions such as car-pooling is a more important skill than just memorizing causes of air pollution.

    Thanks for the post.

  8. The Nem's!!

    AHA! I finally figured out why I always did so poorly on standardized tests! I never answered how THEY wanted me to answer, I answered how I wanted to answer! No wonder my ACT score was so low. -hmmmph-
    But, seriously, it took me until my Human Oppression class in college before I learned that I had to be a critical thinker/reader. There's an agenda?? huh. Once I figured out that I had to say what the professor wanted to hear in order to pass the class, I did extremely well grade-wise (albeit with lots of eye rolls)!
    I worked in the public school system for 5 years (as a speech pathologist) and I would help administer the standardized tests. Teachers (and test proctors) were not allowed to look at the test–I really had no clue what the questions were. If the kids had a question, the line we had to give was "just do your best". You don't read the question, you don't guide them, you don't do anything but say "just do your best". If a handful of kids had questions on a particular question, then you'd write down that question number and turn it in to the school test administrator at the end of the testing period. *MOST* teachers hated standardized testing as much as the students did!
    I never really thought of it all before so in depth until now with my own kids and I'm wondering how I want them educated…homeschooled? catholic school?
    Love this post. So thought-provoking…and scary.

  9. Anonymous

    I couldn't agree more with Kim. All my children are public schooled. Although we have had some very hurtful/judgmental words coming shockingly from Catholic Homeschool parents, I fell it a right fit for my children. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to Catholic school or homeschool so this was our option. I make sure I do their work with them, I read all their material and all their books before they do. Are there certain agendas? Sure. But I show my children that some people didn't have the fortune of being brought or have the same advantages as they do.
    No matter what kind of schooling you give your children, be present and aware.

    • Kendra Tierney

      I do not think homeschooling is the only choice good parents can make, I hope it didn't come across like that. I do think it's the best choice for us and I do think that traditional school kids spend a lot more time than they should on the concept of recycling.

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