Lost in Translation – or the high school transcript for homeschoolers

These thoughts stem from JoVE’s post [on the now defunct homeschooljournal.net site] yesterday about transcripts and portfolios. What started with a discussion of “mastery” and transcripts led me to observe that the Ontario transcript, in its current form, is predicated on the notion of a LACK of mastery. (If the material in classes were “mastered” then why would we need grades?)

So, if transcripts are not meant to demonstrate mastery, but only one’s proportional lack thereof, how is a homeschooler to use a transcript? Is one necessary at all?

UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE – WHO THE IS TRANSCRIPT REALLY FOR?

Of course, the exercise of preparing transcripts is not so much for the child; it’s for some third party who will use the transcript to make assessments or evaluations of your child.

Making a transcript is simply an exercise in comparing what your child has done to provincial standards. Or in other words, which courses and grades do I reasonably expect my child, in his or her current academic state, would have walked away with had s/he studied and been evaluated according to the provincial curriculum expectations? Of course, the only reason to do this in the first place is if someone somewhere is going to ask how your child would have done in this situation, and only if you feel it’s important to tell them! 🙂

In many cases, transcripts for homeschoolers are not meaningful in and of themselves because the child didn’t follow the provincial school curriculum (including provincially-mandated forms of assessment and evalutation) and therefore the transcript may bear little resemblance to what the child actually did.

YOU DO NOT THINK LIKE THE ONTARIO GOVERNMENT

Even if your child had a traditional textbook-based high school homeschooling experience, the Ontario transcript is still only a poor approximation of your child’s educational achievement. For one thing, and I can’t stress this enough, the Ontario curriculum not only mandates curriculum (what is taught) but also pedagogy (how this material is taught) and gives very specific assessment criteria.

For example, the use of graphing calculators is mandated in Ontario Grade 9 math. Ontario courses also have requirements that 30 – 40% of your final grade is determined at the end of the year by some cummulative project, assignment or examination. If your “grade 9” homeschooling math curriculum did not include specific functions on the graphing calculator, or if your method of calculating a final average did not give the requisite weight to a massive activity at the end of the course, then already the percentage grade you may have diligently calculated based on textbook work, reviews and tests doesn’t mean the same thing as a percentage grade on an Ontario transcript.

Given the above directives of the Ontario curriculum (including content, pedagogy, assessment and evaluation), it’s extremely unlikely that *any* homeschooler not actually enrolled in an Ontario credit course can actually be said to be following the Ontario curriculum. This doesn’t just apply to unschoolers, but also to those who are following what is in fact (ironically?) a more traditional program of study than that offered by our public school system.

SO WHY BOTHER WITH A TRANSCRIPT?

It’s easy to justify that any attempt at putting together a transcript resembling the provincial one is an exercise in futility: we could do it, but it wouldn’t really mean anything! Given that many people homeschool precisely to avoid the all-too-common meaningless activities in education, one could conclude that there’s no point in preparing a transcript. And therefore, one could get pretty ticked off about being asked to provide one to the universities when applying for admission.

But, how does our perspective change if we think of the transcript as an olive branch extended to a university admissions committee, as our attempt to help them do their job of ranking and comparing (not assessing and evaluating) applicants? (That was my metaphor. Joe put it a little more harshly: What if we don’t want to appear like a boorish tourist who is indignant that, while visiting a foreign country, no one speaks our language?)

EXCUSEZ-MOI?

I think of generating a transcript as an exercise in translation. It’s an imperfect translation to be sure, since each “language” lacks the words to represent certain key concepts in the other language. But, it’s an attempt to approximate ideas, and to facilitate communication.

Language is culture-based, and sometimes our difficulties speaking and understanding foreign languages are based on this lack of shared cultural experience. So, a transcript can seem all the more difficult to generate because not only are the cultural notions unfamiliar (credits, grades, instructional hours) but they may also be in direct opposition to the values of our own culture.

From an Ontario university standpoint, the good news is that these strange, exotic creatures (university admissions officers) are for the most part willing to deal with those for whom transcript-speak is a second language, and are tolerant of imperfect translations as long as a reasonable attempt at communication is made.

Not all Ontario universities require you to submit a transcript, and those that do are really only interested in documentation that would relate to a typical accredited school experience. The key to effectively translating your experience into transcript speak is understanding their cultural notions.

WHAT TIME IS IT. YOU MEAN NOW?

One noteworthy example is the concept of “instructional time.” The Ontario transcript, and Ontario universities measure academic study directly in hours, and only indirectly in topics of study. This can seem very foreign when your curriculum plan is based firstly on achieving certain outcomes or covering certain material and the amount of time it takes to do this is only a secondary concern, if it is a concern at all.

For example, your child may have self-studied the equivalent of Grade 12 Calculus over a period of 3 years or zipped through it all in six weeks, but the university doesn’t really care how long it took. The proper way to record this on a transcript for them is to say that the length of study was 110 hrs, one semester, or one school year. This is because the university simply wants to know what, in relation to the provincial curriculum, was accomplished.

The provincial curriculum sets aside 110 hrs (or one semester, or one year) of time for this course and the material covered within it. To claim that you studied “six weeks” of calculus is like telling the university that you studied “a chapter or two.” Similarly, to claim three years of study is akin to saying you’re ready to jump into Topology at the university level. It’s not “lying” to say that you studied 110 hrs when it reality it didn’t take that long or more likely, when you didn’t bother to log the number of hours; it’s effectively translating into transcript-speak.

“ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US”

If the goal is effective communication in this non-native language, then the first thing we have to do is understand that direct, literal translation only gets us so far. It doesn’t take very long at all in studying French to realize that “I have eight years,” and “Today, it makes nice,” are in fact the proper ways to communicate to a French speaker that you’re eight years old and it’s a nice day out. It’s no stretch to realize that the translation for “instructional hour” (a concept not used in homeschooling, and different from a 60-minute hour) is going to sound even weirder to non-native transcript speakers.

Your homeschool transcript, should you choose to create one, is going to be more about them than you. Your goal is to look through the Ontario curriculum and decide which courses (based on content) and grades (based on mastery) reasonably approximate the studying your child did throughout high school. It won’t be accurate, and it might sound incomprehensible spoken in our own, native educational language. But it’s all simply an exercise in communication, and it is one of the tasks we sign up for when we choose to assume the role normally taken by the school in our children’s education.

For reference: Ontario Student Transcript Manual, 2007

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Homeschool Diplomas – Fact vs. Fiction

Diploma:

1. an official or state document
2. a writing usually under seal conferring some honor or privilege
3. a document bearing record of graduation from or of a degree conferred by an educational institution

It’s not exactly clear-cut, but the implication behind the word diploma is that it has been awarded to the recipient by someone with the explicit power to do so.

WHY I TAKE ISSUE WITH THE PHRASE “HOMESCHOOL DIPLOMA”

Here’s why I don’t like the phrase “homeschool diploma” (and I know many people find my site by searching that phrase, so I’m not just making this up!):

The family unit does have the power to confer some honor or privilege upon a child who has, in the family’s mind, successfully completed high school.

But, the family unit does not have the power to confer upon said child an award that others outside the family are forced to acknowledge.

It is misleading, I believe, to represent yourself as having earned a “high school diploma” because that phrase carries with it the understanding that a government-approved organization assessed and granted diploma status. In other words, if it came off your own printer, how “official” can it really be?

HOW DO HOMESCHOOLERS GET A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA?

When I speak on the topic of university admissions, I’m often asked how homeschoolers “get a high school diploma.” The reality is, many homeschoolers do not get a high school diploma. And in fact, by definition (according to the universities), if you have a high school diploma, you are not a homeschooler!

If you go through the homeschool admission policies of the Ontario universities, you’ll notice that while you may be asked to provide a transcript, or portfolio, you will not be asked to submit a “diploma.” That’s because universities do not recognize diplomas unless they come from a government-accredited source.

And most importantly, a homeschooled applicant is one who by definition does not possess a government diploma. So, the university is not expecting you to present any diploma whatsoever. This is why you’re considered a homeschooler, and this is why you’re presenting a portfolio, or standardized test results or some other requirement that is not required of traditionally-schooled applicants.

BUT MY CHILD IS ENROLLED IN AN OUTSIDE PROGRAM LEADING TO A DIPLOMA. AM I STILL CONSIDERED A HOMESCHOOLER?

Now, I have had this discussion with others re: “diplomas” that come at the end of comprehensive curriculum programs, mostly those available out of the U.S. and completed through distance studies.

One mother was adamant that her child’s university “accepted” this diploma. The reality is, and it’s a fine distinction so bear with me, the university accepted the child, who happened to have this diploma when he applied.

While the university took this diploma into consideration, and subsequently decided to admit the student, this does not mean that this program’s diploma is “recognized” or “accepted.” The university is not allowed to recognize a non-government-accredited diploma as fulfilling the “does this kid have a high school diploma?” requirement. Note that a government approved diploma can be from *any* government, not just a Canadian province. But, it does have to be awarded by ultimately an organization that is under the jurisdiction of a country’s own education system, not a private curriculum company.

That being said, there are some correspondence diplomas from the U.S. that are government accredited. In fact, the very first time I spoke at the KW conference, we discovered that two members of the audience were following a program that led to an official state diploma from the U.S. This meant that, in the eyes of the universities, these students were not homeschoolers because they had a government diploma to present. So, the specific program you’re following makes a huge difference. (More about these U.S. programs later.)

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT DIPLOMAS, AND WHY YOU’RE OFTEN ASKING THE WRONG QUESTIONS AND THEREFORE GETTING THE WRONG ANSWERS

Here are some of the misconceptions I’ve encountered over the years:

FACT: A diploma is ultimately just a piece of paper signifying an academic honor or achievement. The diploma is not the high school education itself. If you homeschool, you may not receive a diploma for your work. To put it bluntly, get over it! What I mean is, separate the diploma from the education in your mind, and focus not on achieving the diploma at all costs, but rather achieving your life goals (e.g. university admission), then decide whether the diploma is absolutely necessary. Recognize that not every life goal requires a high school diploma, and in fact, some goals are more easily attained without said diploma. When you’re on my website, remember that my primary concern isn’t earning you a diploma — it’s getting you into university, and all advice is given within that context.

FACT: A diploma carries with it the underlying assumption that whoever issued the diploma has been approved by the government to hold the power to certify and acknowledge academic achievement, and this is what allows diplomas to carry universal recognition. This is why not everyone can have a diploma for doing just anything, no matter how worthy it is. Again, get over it! You are not entitled to a government’s seal of approval if you did not do what they specifically require for a high school diploma. The good news is, people like me have been working for years so that this lack of a diploma isn’t an obstacle when applying to university.

FICTION: You need a high school diploma before entering post-secondary studies, so even if you’re 23 with a lot of life experience, you should be figuring out how to go back and get those high school credits that you’re missing so that you can apply to university.
FACT: Apply as a mature student, or to an open university. Don’t waste your time with high school credits unless you really feel you are lacking the academic knowledge/confidence and specifically want to study at the high school level.

FACT: When universities use the phrase “high school diploma” they mean only diplomas issued by government accredited organizations. It’s important to realize that, in Ontario as in many other government jurisdictions, there is only one recognized high school diploma – the government one. All accredited schools (public, private, independent, correspondence) issue this same diploma, not an “equivalent” diploma, but the exact, same one. That’s what being accredited means — given the authority to issue the government diploma.

FACT: People will prey on your innocence/ignorance surrounding diplomas. A few years ago, I overheard one vendor at a large homeschooling conference in Ontario describing his program’s “diploma” to a parent. Words and phrases like “equivalent” and “our kids get into university just like everyone else” are misleading when the audience doesn’t realize two key points. First, there is no such official thing as an “equivalent” diploma. That’s not an official term and no one regulates what is “equivalent” to ensure that it really is like the original. In other words, having an equivalent diploma still means that you don’t have the traditional, government high school diploma. Second, while students with these equivalent diplomas may “similarly get into university” they certainly do not “get into university in a similar way” to kids with the government diploma. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with using an unaccredited program for your high school years, there *is* something very wrong with using verbal sleight of hand to make people think that your diploma “counts” as what we have come to know as a “high school diploma.” And, this is a huge difference. It’s the difference between applying as a homeschooler and applying with the traditional high school diploma (which, if you had, would make you not a homeschooler in the eyes of the universities).

FICTION: All Ontario high schools offer the government diploma, in other words, the one that is recognized.
FACT: In Ontario, all schools that have chosen to “register” with the government will be listed in database which can be searched here. But, not every school listed is permitted to issue high school diplomas. In other words, not every “registered” school (here’s my application fee) is an “accredited” school (permitted to grant the government high school diploma). Look for the indication “Offers credits towards the Ontario Secondary School Diploma” in their listing.

FICTION: Any correspondence diploma from the U.S. is one way to “get around” not having an Ontario high school diploma.
FACT: In the US, there is an extra layer involved in government accreditation. There are about half a dozen “accrediting organizations” that have government approval to accredit individual schools and school boards. So, when using a curriculum from the United States, it’s important to first find out which organization issues the school’s accreditation, and then determine whether this organization is one of the government ones. There are accrediting bodies in the United States who have not received government approval to accredit schools for the government diploma, meaning that the individual school or program can claim “certification” for its diploma, but just not government certification, which is what Ontario universities will demand. Be careful, there are some well-known names out there whose diplomas are not recognized by universities. This doesn’t mean that the universities won’t consider the academic achievement involved in obtaining them, but these diplomas are not stand ins for a government diploma.

FICTION: You need a high school diploma to put on your resume after graduating from college, university or other post-secondary education/training.
FACT: If you are continuing on to post-secondary education/training, that is the education that should be represented on your resume. Not having a high school diploma when you already have a university degree or college diploma should not ordinarily present any problems to you in the job market.

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Afraid of your “average” homeschooled kid’s university admission chances? Spend LESS time on academics!

Those of you who have heard me speak about university admissions know that I’m very optimistic (a “glass half full” kind of gal) when it comes to university admissions for homeschoolers.

I always mention the fact that “everyone knows someone (who knows someone etc.) who went to university with a 10 or 12 or 14 year old.” This is a perfect demonstration that there are very few “rules” that can’t be broken for the right child. Universities want exceptional applicants, and so I always suggest that effort is better spent cultivating the real and natural talents of a child instead of constraining them to fit in some arbitrary box to be packaged up for university admissions.

This advice is well-received by parents of the gifted/talented, but sometimes parents of “average” kids feel that it can’t be a strategy for them. I think they’re (often) wrong.

In fact, it may be the “average” kids who are most helped by this strategy. Students who would otherwise plod and/or struggle through a series of courses when they’re not the most academic kids in the world could instead be developing a real passion for something. I’m not one of those people who believes that “every child is gifted” but I do believe that every child can be really good at something. . . and that goes a long way to standing out as a homeschooled applicant.

I’ve written before about the possibility that formalized homeschool university admission policies can feel constraining; perhaps it was (in some ways) easier when we could naively walk up to the university and say, “I didn’t know you’d want that!” and then everyone would work towards a compromise based on what the child had already done. But, I firmly believe that most of the current policies are flexible enough to allow the “average” kids to spend some time working on standardized tests or other external evaluations while leaving loads of time to get really good at or really into something entirely different.

If you’ll allow me to put on my educator’s cap for a moment and be very frank, if a student can’t pull off average marks on standardized tests, 12U correspondence courses or other methods of evaluation, then perhaps a university program isn’t for him/her. All of the Ontario university homeschooling policies that allow standardized tests in lieu of a high school diploma require only slightly better than average test scores. This should be a relatively easy condition to meet, especially given that students can (and should!) plan years in advance for this.

This is a huge advantage over the traditionally-schooled kids who are sweating to bring their 85% up to an 87% because with grade inflation, that could be the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection letter. These kids only have one way of getting in: earning the highest grades possible.

Not only do homeschoolers have the opportunity to look impressive by pursuing a passion, but the very fact that they are well-developed in one area will translate to better achievement in traditional academic assessments. Kids with self-discipline, self-awareness, curiosity, focus, drive and motivation from even non-academic activities can easily apply these skills to their academics. Success, in any activity, breeds confidence. With this well-founded confidence (based on believing in themselves and not on someone else’s attempts to artificially boost self-esteem) there is no reason why “average” kids can’t achieve “average” test scores.

You can get angry with that statement (or me for saying it!) all you want. But, I’ve seen enough tests and worked with enough students over the years to know that it’s true.

So, even if your child is applying to one of the universities who explicitly state that only academic information will be used in the admissions decision, developing a passion and taking a skill/talent to the next level makes a lot of sense. You could spend your high school homeschooling days focused on the math that always seems too hard, or the books that are a struggle to read. Or, you could make a plan that satisfies university entrance requirements, execute it steadily over a number of years, and allow your child to spend just as much if not more time working at a high level on areas of strength as he/she does working at remediating weaknesses.

Although the article is seven years old, In a class by themselves (Christine Foster, The Stanford Alumni Association November/December 2000 Vol. 28, No. 6) clearly articulates why Stanford loves homeschoolers:

Among the nation’s elite universities, Stanford has been one of the most eager to embrace them. Despite the uncertainties of admitting students with no transcripts or teacher recommendations, the University welcomes at least a handful every year. Stanford has found that the brightest homeschoolers bring a mix of unusual experiences, special motivation and intellectual independence that makes them a good bet to flourish on the Farm.
. . .
For the past two years, for instance, the University has tracked every application from a home schooled student. These forms get flagged with a special code that lets reviewers find them among stacks of applications and helps admission officials chart emerging trends.
. . .
That’s a tiny subgroup, just 0.2 percent of the applicant pool. So why is the University interested? Admission officers sum it up in two words: intellectual vitality.

It’s hard to define, but they swear they know it when they see it. It’s the spark, the passion, that sets the truly exceptional student-the one driven to pursue independent research and explore difficult concepts from a very early age-apart from your typical bright kid. Stanford wants students who have it.
. . .
Among homeschoolers who end up at Stanford, “self-teaching” is a common thread. Parents usually teach in the early grades, assigning and correcting work, but later shift to a supervisory role, spending more time tracking down books and mentors. Stanford-bound homeschoolers typically take several college courses before they apply. The admission office encourages this, both to help with evaluation and to give students a taste of classroom learning before they arrive on the Farm.

Granted, Ontario university admissions is a different ball game. Applicants don’t generally provide extensive applications here like they do in the US. Ontario universities don’t often have the chance to offer admission to applicants based on their “intellectual vitality” as they are generally forced to use grades as the primary, if not sole, admission criteria.

But, those people who knew people who went to university with a young genius — those were Canadian stories, too. (One of my former staff tutors was in a math faculty in Alberta at the same time as a 12 year old.) And, what do you want to bet that this 12 year old had weaknesses in some other academic areas? Do you think he got such special treatment in the admissions process because he was forced to work, day after day, at his poor language skills? Or, do you think that he was able to stand out because he was allowed to cultivate his talent for mathematics?

Similarly, a passion for building from a young age could be very attractive to a university engineering department. A passion for animals can quickly lead to advanced scientific study. A strangely specific obsession with bridges or lighthouses will go a long way to laying the foundation for an architectural program. The basic math and language skills will come as long as they are not ignored. And, it will be a lot easier for students with minimal interest in core academic skills to study with specific goals in mind, such as the SAT, and not just because “math is important.”

This is why I believe that, for “average” homeschoolers trying to get into university, standardized tests are a huge blessing. (Yes, I said it!)

You as a parent can be sure that your child is focusing on some core academic concepts. The tests certainly aren’t about “education” — but how many other courses and programs out there truly are? If you have to jump through hoops, why not a hoop that takes up the better part of a Saturday as opposed to a hoop that requires four years?

The beauty is, that if you plan for it, you can make them about education because you don’t have to get caught up in the last minute cram frenzy. And, working slowly over years means that the test prep doesn’t have to take that much time in any one day/month/year, leaving plenty of time to develop natural talents and skills. At that point, you won’t be looking for ideas about “how to make math relevant to daily life” because your builder will be measuring and your animal lover will be organizing fundraisers for the local shelter.

And if by some chance the standardized test thing doesn’t go your way, your child has a talent/accomplishment/skill to fall back on. Johnny could simply start his own business right out of high school. Beth could continue doing what she’s been doing (since we know she’s passionate about it anyway) and apply to university again in a few years as a mature student. Tammy could apply to an Open University and start earning her degree that way, building up an academic portfolio. Justin could decide that it wasn’t really university he wanted/needed anyway, and look towards college or apprenticeship programs. But, no one would feel their time had been wasted.

How many high school students can say that?

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IB vs AP – Round Two

I’ve written about the differences between the AP and IB programs. In a nutshell, the IB is an entire comprehensive curriculum leading to a diploma whereas the AP program is a series of subject-specific examinations where students are free to pick and choose which exams they write.

Recently, the Thomas B. Fordham foundation sponsored a study “Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do they deserve Gold Star Status?” to compare the academic merits of the two programs, specifically comparing the Biology, English, Mathematics and History offerings of each.

The very act of comparing the two, however, requires some judgement calls: since the IB program requires all students to take a senior math course, there can be as many as six different “levels” of math courses offered by Ontario IB schools. Obviously, the content and goals of these courses will vary widely. Certainly, taking the highest of the “Higher Level” (HL) offerings provides a very different foundation than the lowest of the “Standard Level” (SL) courses. Similarly, there are two AP Calculus exams: AB is meant to cover a half-year college course, while AB is meant to cover the material found in a full-year, first year, American college calculus course. The study chose to compare the SL curriculum to the AB exam, citing the justification that both programs are for students not continuing in a heavily math-based university program.

The first problem I have with the comparison is that students who are not intending to study math (or math-related fields) in university have the option of avoiding AP Calculus altogether. Yet, every IB student must take at least SL level math to graduate with the IB diploma. It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a voluntary, advanced credit course with a required, high school mathematics program, but the point of the study was to establish whether one or both programs really deserved the reputation as a stellar academic program. So, we’ll go with it for now. 🙂

Given that comparison, I couldn’t comprehend how the IB math program scored higher (B-) than the AP calculus (C+). One of my beefs after several years of tutoring students in the IB program is how students are “pushed through” advanced math topics. This is because senior math is required of all students, and quite frankly, not all students are suited to senior level studies in math. And, given that your final IB “score” is dependent solely on the mark from the IB exit exams, an IB SL program really lends itself to teaching to the test.

When you know, for example, that there will be only one exam question concerning derivatives, probably based on throwing something into the air, it’s not too difficult to teach the least talented of students a pattern-based answer that requires no real understanding of the math concepts. There are few 12 year olds who aren’t capable of mimicking these steps.

Today’s update to the story comes via Jay Matthews at the Washington Post in Professor Says Editors Altered Review of AP, IB Courses:

David Klein of California State University at Northridge posted on his university’s Web site his original assessments of AP Calculus AB and IB Mathematics SL, which showed he would have given a C+ to the AP course and a C- to the IB course. The final version of the report, released Nov. 14, raised the IB grade to a B-, contradicting Klein’s view that the AP course was better
. . .
Klein says he does not consider either the AP or IB courses the gold standard for high school math, although in his original report he said they had some strengths not found in mainstream high school programs.
. . .
Klein also says that many of what he considered his strongest points were deleted by the editors, particularly his view that overuse of calculators could interfere with students’ mastery of analytical skills and conceptual understanding. (The report can be seen at http://www.edexcellence.net.)

This, I get. I’ve long taken issue with how both of these programs overuse calculators and minimize manual calculations. The standard argument in favour of using calculators to remove computational barriers is this: the kids can then focus on analyzing and higher level thinking skills.

The problem is, as any good math student knows, our real understanding of mathematical concepts comes from using the underlying math, not avoiding it.

If you don’t know what dance the numbers are doing, you can’t possibly make meaningful sense of the result.

This is one reason why the MDM4U course (Data Management) is so hard for so many kids. I remember studying statistics at university before computer programs were used for the number crunching. I needed to know, by hand and with no formula cheat sheet, how to compute things like standard deviations and correlation coefficients.

You couldn’t get through that course without seeing all the nitty gritty steps involved in arriving at your stats. More importantly, since you knew exactly what you did with all the numbers, you understood what they meant. In the Data Management course, however, many students are using calculators and computers to avoid the “trivial” act of actually calculating the statistics — as if that somehow weren’t part of the point.

Granted, arithmetic isn’t mathematics, but arithmetic is how most of us come to understand numbers. Take that away from students, and they’re making a whole bunch of advanced conclusions, based on very little understanding.

I’m not arguing that it’s perhaps more interesting for lower-ability math students to be able to answer questions about whether given data shows a particular trend or correlation. But, without the ability to do all the work by hand, or at the very least understand it, these students are never going to be in positions where they’ll get to do that kind of higher level mathematical analysis anyway. So, what exactly is this really preparing them for?

It would be one thing if these programs made it very clear that they are shielding the kids from a lot of the real work. I’m all for a full-disclosure statement that informs the students there is a lot more involved in doing this stuff for real, and that they should use their interest/success in these courses to decide whether they want to actually study these concepts (properly!) in university.

But the problem, and the point of this study, is that these programs are often heralded as models of excellence in education. That’s not exactly consistent with the “warning — we’re taking out the ‘hard stuff’ so you can work at a higher conceptual level” disclaimer that should accompany these courses, at least as far as mathematics is concerned.

Public misunderstanding of mathematics and mathematical literacy (I guess the educrats want us to use the phrase numeracy now) have created a real problem in mathematics education. Because so many people think that math is “hard to do” they don’t realize how easy it actually is to teach and learn math through memorization of procedures and ignore understanding altogether. Therefore, to look at the “hard” questions on an AP Calculus or IB math exam and to see kids answer them looks impressive. Memorizing the encyclopaedia sounds impressive, too. And it is, but it’s a feat of memory and not of understanding or appreciation of knowledge.

For homeschoolers, the choice between the two programs is simple. It’s simply not possible to participate in IB offerings without regular enrollment at a local high schools, so AP is your only option.

Is AP worth taking at all? Yes, for many reasons. But, do so with the understanding that the act of preparing for the exam is separate from the act of learning calculus.

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Home school university admission policies – freeing or constraining?

My husband Joe and I look at planning differently. I want an all-up-front plan to my day. Before he’s barely opened his eyes in the morning, I want to know what the plan for the day is. Don’t get me wrong, I may not even stick to the plan, but for me, there’s security in having one. For me, a plan means that I have the option of going on autopilot and I can do what I need to do without stopping to think about what’s coming up next. In that way, a plan is extremely freeing. It frees me from making decisions later, although I’m flexible enough that it doesn’t prevent me from doing so.

I won’t go into too much detail describing Joe’s ideas on planning; he does planning for a living, so suffice it to say that he’s very good at it, and his methods probably deserve coverage that is beyond the scope of this little introduction. But in short, Joe’s planning is intertwined throughout his daily activities. Joe doesn’t try to make an ideal plan for the day, or even a full plan for the day. Instead, whatever comes next is dependent upon what’s already happened, relying on past feedback to predict future outcomes. Joe would feel constrained by a plan that’s already proven to be ineffective, off course or impossible by 10:00 a.m., given what has happened since 9:00 a.m.

What does all this have to do with university admissions? Well, no matter what kind of home schooling family you are, if you think your children might be bound for university, you need a plan. No one can wake up one morning and decide that today’s the day you try to get into university. You can be unstructured about schooling but you cannot face the bureaucratic beast that is Ontario’s post-secondary education system unprepared. Certainly our planning is made easier with the freely-available home school admission policies available on the web. But, have these plans freed home schoolers to go about their home-school-through-high-school without fear of the unknown, or have they now constrained our home-school-through-high school options because we will now have them in the back (or front!) of our minds throughout a home-based high school experience?

Home-Schooled Students Rise in Supply and Demand by PAULA WASLEY describes this trend in university admissions in the US, where from 2000 to 2004, the percentage of colleges and universities with an official homeschooling policy rose from about 50% to about 85%. (emphasis added by me to illustrate the key points)

Without traditional points of comparison, like class ranking and grade-point averages, colleges tend to fall back on standardized-test scores. Many require that home-schoolers take two or more SAT 2 subject tests in addition to an SAT or ACT.

As the number of home-schoolers applying to college continues to grow, admissions offices have attempted to streamline the process. The University of Richmond, for example, has one admissions officer assigned to read all applications from home-schoolers. This year the Common Application, a format used by more than 300 colleges, added a supplement for home-schoolers, which both pleases and unsettles some homeschool advocates.

“We’re not fighting to even be considered anymore,” says Howard Richman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers Accreditation Agency, one of seven organizations in the state that provides accredited diplomas to home-schooled graduates. On the other hand, he says, such standardization may cost home-schoolers some of the individuality that has set them apart.

Bringing home schoolers out into the open and requesting policies from universities has had its pros and cons. From the standpoint of a worried, nervous family, nothing is more assuring than seeing in black and white exactly which steps are needed to fulfill admission requirements. A clear, well-defined home schooling policy is sometimes the most guidance a home-school-through-high-school family has ever seen before!

On the other hand, are home schoolers now finding themselves “boxed in” by the increase in official policies, especially those that are increasingly relying on standardized tests? When there was no policy, there was no black and white. Now that these policies exist, it really means we have to conform to them.

Personally, I think the policies have done more good than harm. Trying to enter university without pre-defined conditions and expectations is a little like avoiding a question that you don’t really want answered. Sure, you can say, “You never told me what you wanted,” but they have every right to respond, “You never asked.”

I recognize that some may view the convergence of admission policies as contributing to the homogenization of an otherwise very diverse group of individuals. Some may see it as unfair that home schooled applicants may be increasingly encouraged to take standardized tests whereas their traditionally-schooled counterparts (here in Ontario) are generally exempt from high-stakes testing, and certainly are at the university entrance level. Of course, we can’t forget that home-school-through-high-school kids have been allowed to ignore provincial curriculum, mandated teaching methods and other such undesirable attributes of a traditionally-schooled education. I’d say it at worst evens out, but more often than not favours the home schooled.

If it wouldn’t normally be your inclination to do so, I’m going to suggest that you try thinking of these policies as I do – as freeing. Free from the worry about what the universities expect from you. Free from the hours spent figuring out how to document your child’s education. Free from the worry that your family’s choice has limited your children’s options. You know what’s expected of you – just plan for it as part of your long-term homeschooling strategy.

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IB vs AP

[International Baccalaureate versus Advanced Placement]

One of my former tutors asked me to describe the similarities and differences between these two secondary programs, so I thought I’d share.

In a nutshell, IB is a whole curriculum leading to the IB diploma and the AP program is individual exams leading to a score for each subject test you write. IB is perhaps better for European/International universities, whereas AP is probably favoured by American universities. Both are recognized in Canada. The IB is a 2 year, comprehensive program including an independent research essay. AP marks are based only on a single big (mostly multiple choice) exam in May. You don’t even have to technically be in a school that teaches AP in order to write the AP test; you just have to find a school at which to write it. To participate in the IB program, you need to be registered an IB school.

Any student can take advantage of the AP exams, including home schoolers, since registration in a particular course is not required. You can prep on your own with AP prep books from the bookstore/library and web resources. There is a school in Oakville, Ontario who welcomes home schoolers who would like to sit examinations on exam day, and they do not require any kind of official enrollment with the school.

Some other comparisons can be found here:

[some broken links removed, new links added Feb 2017]

PDF file on the Lee County Schools site

PDF file on Westerville K-12 (Ohio) site

PDF file on Zurich International School site

A more reasonable comparison, therefore, might be made between the SAT II Subject Tests vs. AP exams.

SAT Subject Tests (formerly called SAT II Tests) are the equivalent of high school exit exams wheras AP exams are the equivalent of first year university/college final exams. SAT Subject tests are almost exclusively multiple choice whereas AP exams include multiple choice and full-length (free response) questions. Both are subject-specific, meaning you can take one for history, one for chemistry etc. But, the level of study is different. Writing an SAT Subject Test is like writing a final exam for a 12U course whereas writing an AP exam is like writing a first year university/college final exam.

Both tests can be used for university admissions in Ontario in lieu of a high school diploma. The AP program is considered to be an “advanced” program, not available to all students. So, AP’s will never be required for university entrance. SAT Subject Tests, on the other hand, can be written as often and in as many locations as the General SAT Reasoning Test is held, and some schools may require SAT II Subject Tests for admission. (Talk to individual universities to see whether they will allow you to present AP scores instead of SAT Subject Test scores. In Ontario, where none of these tests are required of regular Ontario high school applicants, they likely will let you substitute; they just want to see a mark on some test from a home schooler. In the US however, where these tests are part of the regular admission process, they may not.)

AP exams, because of their advanced academic content, may earn you university credit if you score high enough. SAT Subject Tests will definitely not earn you university credit, but will instead be used to determine 12U subject-specific equivalent knowledge. If a home schooler take the “Top Six” then they will not need to take SAT Subject Tests because this knowledge will already have been evaluated. But, a home schooler may wish to take both the Top Six and AP exams because AP content goes beyond the Ontario Grade 12 curriculum and extends into university-level study.

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Is Virtual High School Right For Me?

Virtual High Schooling as a Homeschooling Supplement

There is a growing trend in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada, towards using “virtual schools” to supplement a homeschool education. A virtual school is an educational institution, often without a physical campus, where interaction between teachers and students is conducted through email, discussion boards, chatting and web sites. This trend is fast becoming a pedagogical movement in the U.S. with many comprehensive K-12 schools testing the success of online education. In Ontario, however, these schools exist almost exclusively at the high school level and are designed to help make the high school credit-collecting process more accommodating for traditional students. We are not yet seeing widespread acceptance of the virtual school as a complete replacement for school here in Ontario. But, like night school and summer school, this method of course delivery attempts to inject more flexibility into the traditional high school experience.

Although not the intended audience, homeschoolers have demonstrated great interest in these schools. Virtual schools offer a way to earn high school credits without physically attending school. Students simply apply to enroll in these schools as they would any other traditional high school. Some of these schools even have a “Guidance Department” and can offer academic counseling services.

Is Virtual High Schooling the high school solution homeschoolers have been waiting for?

Maybe, maybe not.

There has been recent opposition by American homeschoolers to implied references to homeschooling and to the use of the term “home schooling” itself in the marketing material of virtual schools. They argue that once homeschoolers register in virtual schools they are no longer true homeschool students, but are instead a subcategory of public students, enrolled in government educational institutions.

Some American homeschoolers see the expansion of virtual schools, especially into the elementary levels (when parents are most likely to homeschool), as an attempt by the government to lure homeschoolers (sometimes unknowingly, and often with enticements such as a free computer on loan) back into the public system. Once registered in a virtual school, families are once again subject to government curriculum and standards.

One concern is that families may unknowingly consent to being pulled back under government control because, while completing virtual studies at home, they overestimate their own control over their children’s education—that is, they consider themselves to still be homeschooling and they believe that they have the same educational freedom they did before. One American family learned that this was not the case when the local public board called requesting updated immunization records shortly after their child enrolled with a virtual school.

Another concern is that if “homeschooling” becomes a commonly accepted term for these students enrolled in virtual, government schools, then it becomes increasingly difficult, from a legal standpoint, to differentiate between those homeschooling through a virtual school and those homeschooling outside the government’s control. Some homeschoolers want to maintain the integrity of their label (and their separate status) to prevent opening the door to further legislation regarding “homeschooled students” as a result of this new educational phenomenon.

Some food for thought:

Virtual Schools are Offered By Public School Boards or Accredited Private Schools

In Ontario, virtual education was initially designed for current public school students who required more flexibility in completing their high school diploma. The intention was not specifically to accommodate homeschoolers. Accordingly, many of the factors built into a public school education are built into a virtual school education:

  • Ministry of Education numbers for each student
  • immunization requirements
  • association with a local school board (note: private schools are considered to be their own “school boards” under the Education Act)
  • standardized test participation
  • Per credit earned: 110 hours of classroom instruction, demonstrated attendance records, compliance with MOE outcomes/standards regarding course content and evaluation.
  • Ministry of Education’s “Full Disclosure” Policy which requires schools to disclose all instances of failing, dropping and repeating a course (with all grades earned) unless a student drops the course early enough in the school year. These virtual courses, and any grades associated with them, will appear on the Ontario Student Transcript and cannot be removed.

Virtual Schools mean Virtual Classrooms, not Independent Study Programs

Since a teacher is teaching the course to a “class” of students, uniform standards are required of all students in the class. While virtual students may have more flexibility in their daily work schedules, there are usually strict classroom deadlines for assignments and daily “attendance” requirements which could include emailing a daily journal to the teacher and/or participating in chatroom discussions at a designated time. Some courses may even involve “group projects.”

Generally, students are required to follow the semester schedule, which allows four months for the timely completion of a course. Failure to complete a course in time results in a permanent failing mark on the student’s official Ontario Student Transcript. (See “Full Disclosure” Policy above.) The student is required to retake the class in its entirety to subsequently earn the credit. homeschooled families who have been used to a more relaxed pace of study, or who have always allowed for “diversions” along the way may find this environment too rigid for their style of homeschooling.

Classroom curriculum has often been pre-designed and there may be little flexibility in the classroom material. Parents have no more say in the content, evaluation and execution of the course than they would in a public or private school. Families who are used to the freedom to choose the topics of study, the learning resources, and the methods of evaluation may suddenly finding themselves drowning in “busy work,” reading inappropriate novels, and skimming over the interesting topics in the course because of a need to keep up with all of the required topics.

Teachers are supervising entire classrooms of students, and may be teaching more than one class, just like in a traditional school. It is still possible to have to compete for the teacher’s attention. Remember the student who was always at the teacher’s desk asking questions? Now he’s emailing her a dozen times each day. The more time she spends responding to his emails, the less time she has to mark assignments, complete her administrative tasks, and correspond with you!

Virtual teachers will likely never meet their students. All evaluation is done on the basis of submitted work. This may not work to every student’s advantage, and may not provide a balanced assessment of your child.

Is Virtual High School Education Right for me?

While virtual schools are appealing for many reasons, each family should decide for itself whether their reasons for homeschooling are supported or undermined by enrolling in these new institutions.

Certainly there are many reasons to embrace virtual high schooling. It does offer parents control over the social environment in which their children pursue their studies, and in many cases, this type of schooling can accommodate students who need day-to-day flexibility in their schedule. The curriculum is ready-made and delivered without any parental involvement, and students can receive credits towards the Ontario High School Diploma. Post-secondary admission becomes a non-issue for those with the provincial diploma.

Asking yourself the following questions should help you decide whether or not virtual high schooling is right for your family:

  • Am I ready, willing and able to let an outside school prescribe my child’s curriculum, even if I am not completely in agreement with what my child seems to be learning?
  • Is it important for my child to be receiving an education that closely follows the government curriculum, and to eventually receive an Ontario High School Diploma?
  • Does my child have the self-discipline, motivation and attention span to follow a prescribed course led by a distant instructor? Will my child make an effort to contact the teacher if he/she encounters problem, and not let problems build unnoticed?
  • Will my child work well in a heavily “graded” (i.e. everything submitted for marks) system? Can my child’s submitted work alone, evaluated by someone who doesn’t know my child, earn the grades that we are hoping to achieve?
  • Can my child comfortably use a computer for long sessions at a time? Can he/she type quickly and accurately enough (or learn to do so) to avoid frustration in completing timed tests online?
  • Am I comfortable with my child becoming a part of the government education system, and will I agree to abide by the accompanying policies and regulations?

If you answered Yes to all of the above questions, then virtual high schooling may be an acceptable option for your family. If, however, you felt uneasy or answered No to any of them, you may need to spend some time considering more deeply whether or not you’re willing to compromise in the ways needed to take virtual high school as a viable option.

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