Due to small sample sizes and weak research designs, research on the academic accomplishments of homeschoolers is few. However, those that do exist and have research merit have suggested that structured homeschooled students do perform better on standardized tests and other academic assessments than their traditionally schooled peers.
Of all the studies focused on homeschooling versus public school, most focus on the academic advantages of the former over the latter. Several studies provide basis for the claims that homeschoolers outperform public school students, including comparisons of SAT scores that the College Board releases each year and assessments that the researchers themselves administrate to students.
I highlight structured homeschooled students specifically because, while structured homeschoolers typically have some exposure to testing, unstructured homeschoolers generally do not subscribe to test-based assessment of academic progress, and so do not have experience with taking tests. Thus, comparing these unstructured homeschoolers to traditionally schooled students would not represent homeschooling performance accurately.
A study of 37 homeschooled students and 37 traditionally schooled students in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick emphasizes this difference. In this study, students took the seven subsets of the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities to compare the academic performance of structured homeschoolers to public school students, unstructured homeschoolers to public school students, and structured homeschoolers to unstructured homeschoolers.
Despite a small sample size, their analyses discovered a statistically significant positive difference between structured homeschooled students and traditionally schooled students, with the former outperforming the latter on all seven subsets (Martin-Chang 199). Unstructured homeschoolers, however, scored worse than both structured homeschoolers and traditionally schooled students.
One of the most cited studies on the scholastic achievement comes from a 1998 survey and testing program by independent assessment consulate Lawrence M. Rudner that tested 20,760 K-12 homeschooled students using the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) or the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP), administrated by the Bob Jones University Press Testing and Evaluation Service.
For all twelve grade school levels, the composite median scores for home schooled students on the ITBS/TAP rose above the national median (Rudner 19). Overall, homeschooled students fell around the 85% percentile, while the national median was 50%.
Another large assessment of standardized test performance by economists and educators Clive Belfield and Henry M. Levin in Privatizing Educational Choice: Consequences for Parents, Schools, and Public Policy determined that, after controlling for twenty-one independent variables, homeschooled students scored SAT scores roughly equally to private schooled students, but markedly greater than public schooled students (Basham 13).
Though most studies focus on American homeschoolers, international researchers have also perceived this academic superiority. In 2003, the Canadian Centre for Home Education used the Canadian Achievement Test (CAT-3), administrated at home to 1,080 homeschoolers, to compare performance to non-homeschoolers. In all seven subsets – computation and number concepts, language and writing conventions, spelling, vocabulary, mathematics, language, and reading – homeschoolers scored over the national average of 50% (Van Pelt 7). Particularly strong were vocabulary, reading, and computation skills.
The current growth of homeschooling bodies in countries worldwide, including the United Kingdom and Switzerland, attest to this acknowledgement of academic advantage (Basham 14).
In the light of the superior testing performance of homeschooled students, it is worth noting that standardized testing has fallen under fire in recent years for its monotony, lack of creativity, unreliability, and ability to measure only a small part of what defines education.
Superior performance on a standardized test may not reflect superior academics or intelligence, but rather superior test-taking skills. The fact that unstructured homeschoolers, who oftentimes do not take tests, performed poorly on the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities supports this argument.
In addition, clean-cut comparisons of standardized test achievement between public and homeschooled students neglect the demographic variables that could affect test scores. Demographic commonalities like higher parental education and median incomes and more traditional family structure may account for superior test performance as much as homeschooling itself.
Furthermore, the three studies mainly discussed – Martin-Chang’s, Rudner’s, and the Canadian Centre for Home Education’s – the participants voluntarily took part. Students and/or parents had to consent to taking the standardized tests and assessments, and even the 20,760 students in Rudner’s study represented only 7% of the approximately 30,000 homeschooled high school students at that time. It is possible that naturally academically-inclined homeschooled students will more often participate in such assessments, and thus studies can only report those scores.
While the “free range” quality of homeschooling does offer students more opportunities for exploration in fields of interest and for interactivity with the subject matter, other surveys into the academic performances of homeschooled students reveal data contrary to those tabulated in the evaluation of previously mentioned studies.
For example, the Cardus Education Survey in Canada gathered a representative sample of religious homeschoolers in the United States aged 24-39 from surveys on various demographic values that Knowledge Network, a respected internet survey firm, provided. The report focused on the effects of attendance at a Catholic high school, a Protestant high school, a nonreligious high school, and a home religious high school on spiritual formation, cultural and community engagement, and academic development.
Among college graduates, the Cardus Education Survey found that students from a home religious school background felt the least prepared for college, and attended open admission universities more often than students with Catholic, Protestant, or nonreligious school backgrounds (Pennings 32, 33). Given these conflicting statistics, one must take claims about the academic superiority of home school versus public school with a grain of salt.
Much support for the academic superiority of homeschooling comes from anecdotes, wherein X homeschooled student earned Y and Z, earned acceptance to prestigious university A, and credited his or her success to their homeschooling experience. These accounts are not without merit, but they do only reflect the experience of one student. Outcome will vary from student to student and according to family effort in the homeschooling project.
Unreliable assessment evaluations aside, homeschooling does offer many educational benefits, including small class size, personalized learning, and learning flexibility – qualities that educators associate with superior learning. If one adopts a holistic view of education, which considers the whole student and not just the grade, homeschooling provides a fuller education than test-driven traditional schools.