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PA Home Education Evaluations

PA Law on the Evaluator

(1) A teacher or administrator who evaluates a portfolio at the elementary level (grades kindergarten through six) shall have at least two years of experience in grading any of the following subjects:
English, to include spelling, reading and writing; arithmetic; science; geography; history of the United States and Pennsylvania; and civics.

(2) An annual written evaluation of the student’s educational progress as determined by a licensed clinical or school psychologist or a teacher certified by the Commonwealth or by a nonpublic school teacher or administrator.
Any such nonpublic teacher or administrator shall have at least two years of teaching experience in a Pennsylvania public or nonpublic school within the last ten years. Such nonpublic teacher or administrator shall have the required experience at the elementary level to evaluate elementary students or at the secondary level to evaluate secondary students.

The certified teacher shall have experience at the elementary level to evaluate elementary students or at the secondary level to evaluate secondary students.

The evaluation shall also be based on an interview of the child and a review of the portfolio required in clause (1) and shall certify whether or not an appropriate education is occurring.

At the request of the supervisor, persons with other qualifications may conduct the evaluation with the prior consent of the district of residence superintendent. In no event shall the evaluator be the supervisor or their spouse.

PA Law on Portfolios

(e) In order to demonstrate that appropriate education is occurring, the supervisor of the home education program shall provide and maintain on file the following documentation for each student enrolled in the home education program:

(1) A portfolio of records and materials.
The portfolio shall consist of:
a log, made contemporaneously with the instruction, which designates by title the reading materials used,
samples of any writings, worksheets, workbooks or creative materials used or developed by the student
and in grades three, five, and eight results of nationally normed standardized achievement tests in reading/language arts and mathematics or the results of Statewide tests administered in these grade levels.

The following article was written in 1998, the 10th anniversary of Act 169. The points made are still valid today.

Perspectives on Evaluating in PA
copyright 1998 by Wendy Bush
permission to distribute permitted if this credit is included

Many families have shared that when the current homeschool law was promoted prior to adoption by the PA legislature, homeschoolers were told that we, like many states, would have the option of selecting how our children’s progress would be assessed: either through standardized testing, a portfolio, or a year-end evaluation. As you know, we ended up with all three, and now the evaluation is a yearly ritual that we all must participate in.

Evaluator’s Role: From the state’s point of view, the evaluator is the education professional who reviews our records and interviews our children to determine if appropriate education has occurred. The homeschool law clearly defines the evaluator’s role. It says parents are to arrange for “an annual written evaluation of the student’s educational progress….” and that “the evaluation shall also be based on an interview of the child and a review of the portfolio…and shall certify whether or not an appropriate education is occurring.”

The term ‘appropriate education’ is used throughout the law as the criterion for determining if the home education program is in compliance with the law. The law defines appropriate education as “a program consisting of instruction in the required subjects for the time required in this act and in which the student demonstrates sustained progress in the overall program.”

So, the evaluator is authorized by law to review the portfolio (samples, log, and test results in grades 3, 5, and 8) and interview the child to verify that the required time of instruction occurred, the required subjects were taught, and that sustained progress was made overall. Anything more or less than this violates the wording of the law.

The Best Evaluator: The best evaluator is someone who respects you; is totally supportive of home schooling; understands the distinctives of family learning versus classroom education; is thoroughly knowledgeable of the PA homeschool law; is supportive of all learning styles; is very familiar with resources and curricula; and can help you with advice as requested.

She also will not prescribe–either overtly or subtly–your curriculum, record-keeping or any other aspect of your homeschool. Sound like a tall order? Unfortunately it is, but there are evaluators who fit this description. Another important point is that the evaluator should be willing to support you in the unlikely event that you would be involved in a due process hearing. In this situation, a confident, knowledgeable, articulate evaluator would be a tremendous advantage.

My perspective on evaluating comes from being on both sides of the fence. Not only must my children be evaluated, but I evaluate Pennsylvania and Maryland students. I’ve had many years to research the role of evaluators from a perspective broader than just our own state, had the privilege of helping many new evaluators take on this task, and talked to hundreds of families about their evaluation experiences.

The Two Kinds of Evaluators: What I’ve come to see is that evaluators can often be divided into two basic groups: those who view homeschooling as a natural, God-given, and/or constitutionally-protected right, and see themselves as the servant of the family; and those who view it as a privilege granted by the government, and see themselves as the agent of the state.

Those who perceive their role as a servant generally hold these perspectives: that families can be trusted to act in their children’s best interests; that families have the right and responsibility to nurture and instruct their children; that each child’s educational goals will be unique. And that government does not have a compelling interest to regulate the education of the child.

Those who share the second view usually feel that parents must have outside accountability or else the education of the child may suffer; that experts should be involved in children’s education; that it is risky to trust parents to do what’s in their children’s best interests; and that government does have a compelling interest to regulate the education of the child.

Real Life Consequences: These differing perspectives can make a huge difference when played out in real life. The first kind enters the evaluation with trust in and respect for the homeschool family, while the second enters with a judgmental, ‘prove-yourself-to-me’ attitude. The former looks to meet the family at their point of need; the latter holds up a yardstick for the family to measure up to.

And the way a family relates to each kind of evaluator is different, too. Families are comfortable sharing their struggles with the servant evaluator…they know she respects them and is there to help, not to make them fit her mold of ‘successful homeschooling’. They also know that they are in control because the evaluator is their paid consultant–she is working for them to fulfill a very narrow directive in the law.

Families, however, often are concerned with impressing the judgmental evaluator, even if they have a long-standing, friendly relationship. That is because this evaluator comes not only to verify that the law was obeyed, but also to inspect whether or not her own subjective standards for ‘successful homeschooling’ have been met.
The judgmental evaluator is in control of these evaluations. She essentially overrides the homeschool law by imposing unauthorized demands on the families she supposedly is working for. It’s uncanny how many families begin these evaluations with apologies about why the school year was not as ‘good’ as it might have been, or why the portfolio is not as thick as it ‘should’ be. Some families even mistakenly think the judgmental evaluator’s extra requirements are part of the law!

The judgmental evaluator also feels homeschoolers are in competition with public school students–needing to outperform them to prove our competence to teach our own. They also tend to promote competition among our ranks by labeling some as successful, creative homeschoolers, and others, by default, as less than successful and creative. Many families are left feeling very inadequate if their children are not ‘super kids’, participating in all kinds of high-profile activities.

Many unsuspecting families accept the judgmental evaluator’s definition of homeschool success and let it determine their goals, even when it keeps them from doing what is truly in their child’s best interests. Why? Because they’ve accepted the myth that these ‘trained educators’ know what’s best, and that to pursue a different course risks ruining their child. This ‘tyranny of the expert’–which cannot fully appreciate the uniqueness of each individual child–sadly rears its head even in homeschool circles.

Let me make this very clear: These evaluators are truly well-meaning in what they are doing. They are just misinformed or have different presuppositions. For instance, many are simply copying the example of other evaluators who happen to impose unauthorized requirements–they have no idea they are going beyond the law.
Plus, there are some who have never read the entire homeschool law, and approach evaluations the way they would approach evaluating a child they have had in their classroom all year–definitely not what the law prescribes.

And there are those who honestly believe that these extra requirements are necessary in order to insure the quality of home education, and see themselves as the ‘policemen’ or ‘quality control agents’ of the homeschool community.

How We Got Here: When the PA homeschool law was passed in 1988, a handful of families involved in its passage urged evaluators to assume more authority than prescribed by law, stemming from a general lack of confidence in families. Many of them were teachers (and evaluators themselves), and brought a classroom perspective to the task. They also brought the school mentality that parents cannot do a good enough job on their own, but need education experts to monitor them.

School Mindset: They openly revealed a bias of the worst sort when they began requiring families to prove that their children are regularly involved in social activities outside their home and immediate family–certainly not required by law, and a definite vestige of the government school/social services distrust of parents which has no place in the homeschool community.

Interview of the Child: Another encroaching interpretation promoted involves the interview of the child–which is not seen as an opportunity to allow children to willingly share about their school year–but is used as a time for the child to ‘prove’ himself. Some will quiz children on what they studied, give short tests, require oral reading or a written composition, and some even interview the child privately without the parent present. For children who are out-going, this can be a fun time. For those who are shy or lacking confidence in this area, it is a highly threatening experience.

Portfolios: Evaluators were also told to require huge portfolios, not the sampling of papers specified by law. The justification was that mega-portfolios would impress school districts so much with the terrific job we are doing that they would leave us alone. This comes from the mindset that we are competing with the public schools.
Unfortunately, districts harass families as much as ever, but they now have an additional expectation of mega-portfolios from everyone. This puts many families in a difficult position, and sets us up for competition among ourselves. If parents want to create a memory book for their children, they can do so without also using it as their portfolio. The portfolio can be relevant excerpts from the memory book, but does not need to be the entire collection.

The Log: Though the law merely requires the log to be “made contemporaneously with the instruction, which designates by title the reading materials used”, families were instructed to compile detailed records, whether or not the records were actually useful to them.
This kind of onerous record-keeping is intimidating for many moms who are already weighed down by many pressing responsibilities. And, again, such logs create expectations among school district officials.

Evaluation Letters: Lengthy evaluation letters were also endorsed, even though the law only requires a statement to the effect that appropriate education occurred. These long letters describe the child’s strengths and weaknesses, giving districts more knowledge about families than required. Often, these long letters are redundant in that they merely summarize what the district will see for itself as it looks through the portfolio.
Even when a family does request a detailed evaluation (for college admissions; to pacify critical relatives, etc.), the school district can be given a separate letter with the required statement regarding appropriate education…the district does not need the detailed accounting.

There are cases, however, when a longer letter is needed to assuage a district’s concerns, for example, possibly to explain low test scores of a late reader, or for a child who was homeschooled after being removed from public school after having serious academic problems.
In situations like these, a well-written letter which reflects trust in the family can avert possible trouble. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Lengthy evaluations end up creating widespread expectations for all homeschoolers to have such letters. And, they drive up the cost of evaluations, making evaluations a pretty expensive proposition for many of us.

If you were to ask Home School Legal Defense Association, they would tell you that all of these practices are unauthorized by the law and establish dangerous precedents. Yet these subjective interpretations of the law quickly took hold across the state as they were disseminated through homeschool conferences, publications, and evaluator meetings. We became perhaps the only state in the nation where homeschoolers purposefully interpreted and implemented their law in a more restrictive way than intended by their legislature!!

Those who were concerned about the families who would be adversely affected by these interpretations and supported the actual wording of the law were told to not rock the boat–that these extra requirements were necessary to make the new law work. Differing interpretations of the law were actively suppressed.

These homeschool evaluators soon became the ‘experts’ and the bureaucracy in the emerging PA homeschool movement. They truly saw themselves as the protectors of homeschooling in Pennsylvania, and felt that the unauthorized requirements were acceptable as long as they were being imposed by fellow homeschoolers “who have a vested interest in maintaining th[e] quality” of homeschooling, as a PA Department of Education official wrote in support of such a position.

The Harm of Unauthorized Requirements: But do these unlawful requirements really help us? In reality, submitting to unauthorized requirements is harmful to homeschooling in a number of ways. First, it creates a de facto law which is much more stringent than any of us would want to see imposed on us by law. Yet, the net result is still the same…a unnecessarily burdensome law which gobbles up time, energy, and money that the family could better devote to their children.

And, willingly complying with unauthorized requirements takes us a dangerous step closer to having these extras codified into law. It discourages potential homeschoolers–already nervous about the new venture–and causes many to switch to public school in the secondary grades, fearful that they cannot meet the evaluator’s standards in the high school years.
Extra requirements also put undue pressure on families, causing some to center their lives on “doing things for the portfolio.” And requirements such as ‘creativity’ and ‘homeschool excellence’ are so subjective that most families can never be quite certain they are making the grade, resulting in a measure of anxiety all year long.
But–most harmfully–unauthorized requirements add to the falsehood that homeschool parents cannot be trusted to do a good job, but must be required by law to be directly accountable to either the government or fellow homeschoolers.

Living in the Past or Present?

Again, let me stress that those promoting these unauthorized requirements are doing so out of a sincere concern. Ten years ago, the homeschool movement was still in its toddlerhood, not knowing where it would lead. These families were acting based on the limited experiences of the homeschool community as a whole.

Ten years ago when the law was passed, I’m sure they were worried about how families would do given this new law that would allow more people to homeschool.
Ten years ago, those fighting for a new law weren’t confident that parents could really ‘do it’ without someone established by the government to monitor their ‘quality’.
Ten years ago they weren’t sure that homeschool children aren’t at greater risk of child abuse and neglect that those attending school.
Ten years ago they didn’t know that families in the many states with no government regulation of homeschooling would show themselves responsible in teaching their children.
Ten years ago they weren’t sure how far we needed to go to impress local school authorities in order to protect our freedoms.
Ten years ago they didn’t know there would soon be a myriad of studies proving everything from the fact that homeschoolers in states with zero regulation do just as well academically as those in heavily regulated states, to the fact that homeschool kids are better socially adjusted than their public school counterparts.

No, they didn’t know all that we know now, so we can understand their concern.
But that was ten years ago. [Now over 20 years!] In that time, the national homeschool community has proven itself by its fruits–our children.
Just as we no longer have to wonder if homeschooling can produce intelligent, well-adjusted adults, we no longer have to wonder if parents will take their homeschool responsibilities seriously.

The negative stereotypes of negligent parents and children at risk have gone the way of the Edsel.
Today, in 1998, we know that homeschooling is successful–and that we do not need to add to our already burdensome law to keep it that way.Evaluators who hold to unauthorized requirements are behind the times and need to catch up with reality. Clinging to the old stereotypes only plays into the hands of those who would like to see homeschooling set back 20 years. Why would we want to do that to ourselves?

I have no doubt that if all PA evaluators began requiring no more than the law specifically requires, the climate for homeschooling would improve dramatically. And, I also believe that if in unison, our evaluators publicly expressed trust in families–in word and deed–and spearheaded the effort to obtain a better homeschool law, they would no doubt be successful!
But as long as our ‘paid consultants’ feel we need to be held to a higher accounting than even our state legislature did ten years ago, we can’t progress forward, and might even lose some of the freedoms we now have. Please–let’s think and pray about this, and be willing to have an open discussion about it.

Distance Evaluations
copyright 1998 by Wendy Bush
permission to distribute permitted if this credit is included

Everyone knows that the PA homeschool law requires an annual evaluation to certify if an appropriate education has occurred. This evaluation includes a review of the portfolio materials and an interview of the child.

But how many know that the review and interview do not have to be in person? Because the law does not specifically require the meeting to be face-to-face, you have the option of having a ‘distance’ evaluation.
Just what is a distance evaluation? Here’s how it can work. Say there is a qualified evaluator whom you want to use, but she lives across the state, making it very difficult for you to travel to her. Or, perhaps, your longtime evaluator moves out-of-state thousands of miles away. Do you start looking for another person to fill her shoes? You don’t have to! You can send your portfolio, log, and test results–or copies of these–to her by mail. She can review them and then you can schedule a time to conduct the interview of the child by telephone.
It’s as easy as that! If you’ve sent the original portfolio, she can return it along with your evaluation. If copies were sent, she can keep them, throw them away, or mail them back to you. It’s up to you. At this point, you’re all set. The homeschool law has been satisfied completely.
If you do mail original documents, it is wise to send them by certified mail so you have a record of it, and to minimize mail delivery problems.

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