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Oregon to Require More Tests for Home-Schoolers

Ohanian Comment: These public school/home school alliances are tricky. If parents use courses paid for with public funds, then they should expect to follow public rules. Do they really think that places like HomeSource shouldn't be evaluated? I respect and admire parents' desire to homeschool, but, having made that choice, why do they need publicly-funded skill delivery institutions? It seems like they want it both ways, which is what some people would define as a private school education. Note that the public pays for horse-riding lessons for home schoolers.

One of myriad reasons that parents choose to home-school is a belief that public schools go overboard on standardized testing.

But thanks to a new, more stringent interpretation of state rules by the state Department of Education, students who take classes from publicly funded home-schooling centers such as the Bethel area's HomeSource soon will be expected to complete the same reading, math and writing tests given to their public-school counterparts each spring.

That pending mandate comes on top of a long-standing rule already requiring all registered home-schoolers to take an approved standardized achievement test in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10.

The HomeSource board of directors decided to comply before waiting to be told, and gave the first in this year's series of state tests - the writing test - on March 11. More than two-thirds of the 22 eligible students took part.

"The reaction was really very positive," said Paula Praus-Williamson, HomeSource executive officer, who sent letters out alerting parents two weeks before the test. "I think they would have liked more notice, but I think they appreciated the communication coming from us."

HomeSource, which opened in 1996, offers an array of courses aimed at rounding out a home-schooled education. Located in a converted medical office off Highway 99N, the center serves about 600 students in grades kindergarten through 12, with an annual budget of a little more than $1 million.

HomeSource students come from Lane County and beyond, but most are placed through a contract with the Bethel School District after gaining permission from their home districts. The center receives 80 percent of the state's public-school per-pupil funding, with the Bethel district keeping the remainder. (For the past couple of years, Springfield and Fern Ridge have had separate contracts with HomeSource, so they keep the extra 20 percent of the per-pupil allocation.)

Brenda Porter, who lives in the Bethel district, was among the parents who declined to have their children tested, and will do so again with upcoming reading and math tests. Any parent has the right to opt out of state tests, although few regular public-school parents do so.

"I just thought, what's the point of getting another test? It just didn't seem fair," said Porter, whose 16-year-old daughter, Beth, takes Advanced Placement English literature, algebra, horse-riding and soccer through HomeSource. "I guess I'm standing on the principle of the whole thing, too. It's like, why are WE required to do all this testing?"

Cindy Gates of Veneta, who has four children taking courses through HomeSource, allowed her daughter, Nicole, 16, to take the writing test. "I'm not real big on the state testing. I don't think it's that useful, but we did it to prove that HomeSource is doing a good job and that home-schooled kids can do well," Gates said.

Jannelle Wilde of Yoncalla, who drives her 10-year-old son, Lincoln Falk, to HomeSource once a week for a full day of classes, said she has "a huge issue" with state testing. But she was concerned when she learned that the Bethel district could get dinged if HomeSource students opt out of the tests.

That's because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires a certain level of test participation for a school district to show "adequate yearly progress."

For state funding and accountability purposes, most HomeSource students are considered Bethel students.

"We did it so it wouldn't reflect badly on the Bethel School District, because it provides the funding and support for HomeSource," Wilde said.

Lincoln, whose mother describes him as "a low-stress child," said the test was "pretty fun." He wrote a story about a little boy who had never been outside, embellishing it with an unsolicited illustration.

The testing demand isn't the only change coming as a result of the new interpretation of the rules governing private alternative education programs.

In the past, the Department of Education and the Bethel district applied those rules loosely, viewing HomeSource as something entirely different from other private alternative education programs. Most such programs, such as Eugene's Looking Glass Riverfront School and Career Center and Northwest Youth Corps, offer specialized curricula that typically attract students who have struggled in regular high schools.

Students enrolling in a private alternative program must get a referral from their home district, which - under the statute - must first determine whether it is the best placement for that particular child.

But HomeSource and other private alternative programs share at least one essential characteristic, noted Cliff Brush, who coordinates alternative programs for the Department of Education.

"It's important when we think about these to remember they're all publicly funded," said Brush, who helped draft a letter last month citing "compliance deficiencies" in the Bethel district's handling of HomeSource.

"They may be operating within or outside of the district themselves, but as long as they're publicly funded, the same standards should apply."

The department's letter said the district had fallen short on requirements to approve and evaluate HomeSource annually, and was unable to show that student placements at HomeSource were handled according to the statute.

HomeSource's Praus-Williamson said home-schooling advocates may push for legislation in the next session to exempt HomeSource and the handful of similar home-schooling centers from some elements of the private alternative program statute.

"We want to work with the state to ensure that we can continue working with the families we've worked so well with," said Praus-Williamson, who is concerned that the double-testing requirement as well as potential changes in the placement and referral process could be burdensome for some home-schoolers. "We believe we're a model program."

Bethel Superintendent Steve Hull agreed, and said he believes that the private alternative education statute is "outdated" when it comes to HomeSource. In the meantime, he said, district officials will work with HomeSource as well as with the Lane Education Service District, which registers home-schoolers, to design placement, referral and oversight procedures that comply with the rules.

"There is a nine-year history of making this work," Hull said. "We're trying to follow the guidelines from the state - that's important. And we're trying to work with HomeSource and be sensitive to the needs of these children and these families. Those are the two things that we're trying to balance, and we're looking for a win-win."

— Anne Williams
The Register-Guard


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