Many homeschoolers must test due to state regulations.
Many homeschoolers choose to test to track progress and fill in educational gaps.
Many homeschoolers educate at home precisely to avoid testing.
Which is right? As with many hot topics in the homeschooling community, I don’t know if there is a right or wrong answer. Our state does not require it (thank goodness!) and I usually fall into the last category. The only testing we have done around here is the Math U See tests that follow at the end of each chapter. I usually avoid testing like the plague. I grew up taking LOTS of tests (and acing them) only to forget the information the next day.
And I believe our flawed educational system is set up on a system of testing and tracking that ultimately fails our kids. Teachers struggle to fit all the information in that will be required of students taking the tests. There is little time to enjoy exploring subjects deeply. There are no rabbit trails to follow. Most history and science is repeated year after year (albeit at a slightly more complex level) so there are huge gaps of history and science that never get studied at all or are crammed into a short four-year high school level. Most teachers long to explore innovative new ways to teach and interact with their students. Most never get the chance because curriculum is already dictated due to test scores. This is exactly the kind of thinking that made my husband and I originally decide to homeschool in the first place. We remember what school was like and we knew we didn’t want that for our children.
My husband and I recently watched the Waiting for Superman documentary. It was completely fascinating. I agreed with a lot of the flaws and problems that crop up in our education system. Where I choose to part ways is in the solution. Their solution? Longer school days, more days of school, more push for excellence and higher test scores. I was saddened. The worst part was their discussion of tracking and how it automatically shuts out some students (usually of the poorer class) for upper college track learning. It made this out to be a horrible problem. These poor students could end up as…gasp…farmers or in a technical skilled position. Here’s my rub…why is being a farmer bad? Why is being an electrician not as important as being a doctor or lawyer or CEO executive? How could that doctor even function without food in his belly to provide energy unless the farmer provides his food? How could that doctor perform surgery unless an electrician makes sure his lights and equipment have the proper conduits to work? And, my experience has taught me, college isn’t needed for everyone. Working your way up in a company (used to be called apprenticeship) is, in many cases, more valuable to getting where you want in a job then a piece of paper with a completed degree.
This year we chose to test Gabe. Not in an official state-standardized sort of way, but in a more laid-back see-what-you-know sort of way. A couple of years ago I recieved a free copy of Spectrum Grade 4 Test Prep. It is a practice workbook for taking a standardized test. It covers Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, and Science. I was never sure if I was going to use it or not but held onto it anyway.
Why would I subject him to this if I feel so strongly in the other direction? Good question. The answer for me is complex and simple at the same time. In it’s simplest form, we wanted Gabe to have the experience of sitting down and knowing what it was like to take a test. We wanted him to be exposed to the art of having to take a test with all its pressures. I also wanted to know how we, as a homeschool family, stacked up against public education. (This was just for my own personal curiosity.) We’ve covered, for the most part, one full cycle of history including government and he is well-read in science. This, for me, would answer how well he retained some of the information we did study as well as how he would do with the pressure of having to answer questions on information he may have not been exposed to yet.
For instance, he officially has not studied fractions in math (we are doing that in fifth grade based on our curriculum choice) yet I know he’s read of fractions and worked with them in real-life situations. There is a whole test page on fractions in the math section. How will he do with assimulating this new information and making an educated guess?
On a more complex level, this also gives him a glimpse into the life of a public-schooled student. Answering worksheets like this? Standard for the public-schooled student. Worksheets are a daily habit. Multiple-choice tests are a standard, weekly practice. The tediousness of reading a section of text that is, usually, quite boring and then having to “comprehend” that information in the form of questions is status quo for the public-schooled student. Our family has been on a steady diet of living books, not dry text books. Part of me wanted him to have a bit of appreciation for how we do school as opposed to how he could be doing school. And the art of sitting down and just having to complete something no matter how boring or tedious is good for the character. A steady diet of it will kill the love of learning but a good dose every once in a while is good medicine!
That said, this test was hardly stressful. There was no timer. Bathroom breaks were permitted whenever he felt like. He could have a drink sitting next to him as he worked. And I, as the “teacher”, had the privilege of eliminating the crap part of the tests. (Is it really necessary to fill out a page about a personal narrative or answer questions about a bar graph that my second grader could ace or give politically correct answers to philosophies that our family doesn’t adhere to?) We just adjusted the grading to figure percent per area based on questions answered correctly divided by total number of questions.
At first he was excited…something new and different. He quickly changed his tune when he ran into a question he didn’t know because we had never gone over it. His views on fairness were challenged. This was good fodder for us to discuss the education system and the parts he will eventually have to take part in whether he wants to or not. The experience also allowed us to learn about some heart issues of character that needed to be addressed.
He did excellent in Language Arts and Mathematics. Social Studies was his downfall. This was not because he didn’t necessarily know some of the material (although that played it’s part as we’ve concentrated on chronological history and have not spent a great deal of time on “social studies” of his immediate neighborhood), mainly he just refused to answer some of the questions. When asked he said this was his least favorite subject. I explained on how not answering a question brings down his overall grade and we talked about educated guesses and how to glean new information from the context of surrounding information.
Surprisingly, he also didn’t score as well in science. Which was unexpected for me because he loves science and is always walking around reading science books. Is it certain elementary jargon he’s not familar with? Is it asking questions of scientific topics he’s not really interested in? His interests lie mainly with electricity and chemistry and the elements. Would I be better informed to find out what he does know? I will be contemplating this further as I set up a more Charlotte Mason style test as I know this will give me a more accurate view! Check back for discussion on that!
Now, I am not being honest unless I admit I was a bit afraid of even giving him this test. I knew this was a good thing and would help his father and I evaluate where he is academically, where we feel he should be, and if that is due to testing bias or if there is really a gap in our teaching. But this meant flaying me open for vulnerability. How would I, as teacher, be judged? As I was grading his work my heart was racing and I realized that this test reflected on me as much as him. Or, at least, I felt it did even if it wasn’t suppose to. I had to take it to prayer and ask the Lord to show me what was really important, how I should view the scores, what we should change (if anything) and, most importantly, if this is an experience we will repeat with future children or whether it was even worth our time. Those questions have yet to be answered. But at least I was honest with the pros and cons of the experience. And, if nothing else, it just reaffirmed for me that testing academics is such a narrow view of how your student is progressing. The best part of this experience that I will take away is learning about my son’s heart, not his score!
I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance. This sort of treatment had only one result: I did not do well in examinations.” ~ Winston Churchhill
For more discussion and thinking on this hot topic ~
Would love to hear your views on testing in the comments!