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Then again, if a parent lives in, say, California, where 30 kids pack the average third-grade classroom, who can blame her for home schooling? If it's a choice between being good to one's family or good to one's community, it's not much of a choice at all. Many, of course, try to be both, but some parents say the schools are too far gone. Amy Langley, who home schools her son and daughter in Decatur, Ga., believes two-income families don't participate enough to make public schools work. "And too much class time is spent on discipline," she says.
For all that home-schooling parents give up, what are their kids getting? We know the average SAT score for home schoolers in 2000 was 1100, compared with 1019 for the general population. And a large study by University of Maryland education researcher Lawrence Rudner showed that the average home schooler scored in the 75th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills; the 50th percentile marked the national average. But not all home schoolers take standardized tests, and one suspects the better students are the ones volunteering to do so. It's also difficult to assess how a child who is home schooled would have done in a traditional school. Because of the paucity of research, no one can say much more than this: home schooling seems to require the same formula for success as parenting, which is to say, it can work when the parents are loving and open-minded and dedicated. As Simon of the Arkansas department of education says, "You've got examples of very well-structured home schools and total disasters, just like you do in the public schools."
Certainly the old suspicion of the academic credentials of home-schooled kids has waned; perhaps three-quarters of universities now have policies for dealing with home-schooled applicants, according to Cafi Cohen, author of The Homeschoolers' College Admissions Handbook. Today Harvard admissions officers attend home-schooling conferences looking for applicants, and Rice and Stanford admit home schoolers at rates equal to or higher than those for public schoolers. These schools compete for students like L.J. Decker, 17, from Katy, Texas, who scored 1560 on the SAT and was part of a team of home schoolers who won the Toshiba ExploraVision contest for their idea of a futuristic scuba device that would use artificial hemoglobin to convert the oxygen in water into air.
Some colleges, like Kennesaw State University in Georgia, aggressively recruit home schoolers. Justin Tomczak, 22, now a sales associate for Salomon Smith Barney, was one of them. After he arrived at Kennesaw several years ago, he started a group for home-schooled kids, but today home schoolers have become so integrated into campus life that the group has pretty much disbanded. "Back then, [other students] thought we were religious weirdos who couldn't cope," he says. "Now the perception is totally different."