Homeschool Testing - To Test or Not to Test?
A young homeschool mom came to me for advice concerning her oldest child, a sophomore in high school. “He totally bombed his chemistry test!” she exclaimed. “I don’t want to give him a bad grade, but he obviously doesn’t understand the material in the last chapter. If he keeps on like this, he’s going to fail the entire course. I don’t know what to do!”
“Sounds like you need to go over the chapter again, until he understands it,” I replied. “Then give him a second test.”
My friend looked at me in disbelief. “I can do that?” she asked. “Just go over the chapter again?”
“Why not? I mean, the point here is for him to learn the material, isn’t it?”
“But won’t that put us behind?”
“Put you behind what?” I asked. “This isn’t a race, Sarah. Besides, what’s the point of moving ahead to the next chapter if he doesn’t understand this chapter yet?”
Homeschool Testing: The Freedom to Personalize
One thing I really like about homeschooling is the freedom I have as an educator to modify lesson plans and schedules to actually meet the educational needs of each child.
I have one son who was a reluctant math student. In a typical public school classroom, he probably would have failed a homework lesson or a test, and then just been dragged along with the rest of the class as an overwhelmed teacher tried to meet her course objectives for the majority of her students for the semester.
I have a daughter who was reading Charlotte’s Web (and crying her eyes out under the kitchen counter) before she finished kindergarten. Had she attended a typical kindergarten class, she would have had to sit through weeks of tedious lessons that covered concepts she had already mastered. “School” would have quickly become synonymous with “tedium.”
I attended public school as a child. I spent many years as a student in a drill-it-even-if-you-already-know-it, test-and-move-on-whether-you-know-it-or-not traditional school environment. As a homeschool mom, it was very difficult for me to set aside the mentality that emphasized lesson plans, academic schedules, and test scores over learning and academic excellence.
Don’t get me wrong: I make lesson plans; I have a calendar that I use to schedule our coursework for the school year; and, yes, all of my students have taken tests. I don’t think those things are intrinsically bad. They can actually be very helpful when used correctly. But lesson plans, schedules, and tests are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are tools we use as we pursue the greater goal of learning.
Homeschool Testing: Reasons to Test
Grades in the elementary years are assessed without many tests. As a homeschool family, you should be able to tell what your children had learned when you review their homework assignments, when you read the things they wrote, and when you listen to their conversations at the dinner table.
Once the kids reach high school, homeschoolers can test more often, however, you can still do much of your progress evaluation through talking to your student, listening to them read, and talking to them about what they are learning. There are a few tests you might want to give, such as end-of-chapter tests in math and science as a way to reinforce the material just covered and quarterly and end-of-semester comprehensive exams.
Keeping a few tests from high school may be needed when your child goes through the college admission process. Some colleges may ask to see samples of work done in high school. Of course, keep more than just tests - writing samples, lab work, etc can all be kept to show academic excellence.
What about standardized achievement tests in homeschool testing?
Standardized testing can be useful as annual testing but is generally not required. (Be sure to check your state homeschool requirements!) Before we moved out to the middle of a hayfield on the edge of Nowheresville, I registered the kids for the Stanford Achievement Test each year. I had them take the Stanford test for a couple of reasons.
First, in the early years of our homeschool, I was very insecure about my ability as a teacher. I was genuinely afraid that I might do irreparable academic damage to my students. I explained to the kids that the achievement testing was not to assess their performance as students but to assess my performance as a teacher. The Stanford test was kind of like an annual teacher checkup for mom, and the numbers on the score sheets calmed my nerves and gave me the confidence to continue.
Second, I wanted some kind of paperwork in the kids’ school files in the event I got run over by a distracted driver in the Kroger parking lot, something objective and official-looking that school administrators would recognize, just in case I died and the kids could no longer continue their home education.
Third, the Stanford test was an annual social event. My kids thought coloring in bubbles was a hoot. Plus, they got to spend the day with friends and eat cool snacks during exam breaks. The testing requirements were minimal and it made me feel better for them to take the test.
I also think it's important for my kids to have practice taking tests so that, well…so that they would have practice taking tests. When my middle son was in high school, he registered for a dual-enrollment class at a local university. “How’d your test go?” I asked after his first exam.
“Well,” he answered, “when the teacher handed out the test, I looked at it and thought, Am I in the right room?”
Definitely not a good sign! That first test did not go well. Tom said he looked at the first page and drew a total mental blank. Second page: still mentally blank. The last several pages of the exam were multiple-choice and Tom’s brain kicked in and he worked easily through the remaining problems. Final score? Let’s just say it was a bust.
Funny thing is, when he got the test back, he sat down at the kitchen counter and worked through every one of the problems. “Hey, I know how to do these!” He was surprised that they were really not difficult, amazed that they had looked so foreign and unintelligible on test day.
Tom’s problem was not that he didn’t know how to work the problems. His problem was test anxiety. Before Test 2, we did some serious strategizing. He worked on lots of review problems before test day. When his teacher handed out the exam, Tom started at the back of the test with the multiple-choice problems. Then, once his brain warmed up and he relaxed a little, he flipped back to page one. Tom aced the second test.
Identifying test anxiety—and figuring out a way to deal with it—enabled Tom to put a major obstacle behind him before he began life as a full-time college student. He didn’t need to take a test to see if he understood the material: he needed to take a test simply to see if he could take a test. Practicing for tests allows for the basic skills that our kids know to not be overcast by the anxiety of the test itself.
One place that your student will be required to take standardized tests is on their track toward college during the high school grade levels. Testing options like the ACT® or SAT® will be needed to gain admission to colleges all over the US. Although this is changing to some degree, scholarship money is often tied to these sorts of test results, and using practice tests to become comfortable with the testing process will be an added benefit. Practice taking standardized tests is always untimed until there is a strong level of comfort, at which time the student can practice timed tests in short bursts to allow them to get used to what that feels like.
If you have anxieties like me and want to use standardized testing as a way to ease those insecurities, other options like the Iowa Basic Skills Test, the California Achievement Test, the TerraNova 2, and the Stanford 10 Test can be used in much the same way as I used the Stanford Achievement Test. Percentile rankings can show you progress in all subject areas.
Homeschool Testing: The Purpose of Tests
From the time my children began school, I wanted them to understand that test scores were not a measure of their intelligence, not a measure of their ability to learn, and not a measure of their personal worth. Tests were tools to help me see in what areas I needed to work harder as their teacher; tests were documentation, something to put in their school folders in case we were ever asked to prove what subjects we had covered; tests were practice for school after homeschool had ended.
Did any of my kids ever fail a test? Yes, and no…
Once when I finished grading my student’s math test, the page had more red ink on it than black. Despite the fact that he did well on his homework assignments, my son missed over half the problems on the end-of-chapter exam. We took a couple of days and worked through the chapter again. I created a second test. This time, my young student aced his exam. “That’s better!” he exclaimed.
One of the benefits of homeschooling is that when a student has difficulty with a particular subject—such as fractions or subject-verb agreement or science vocabulary—we are free to take the time needed to go back and figure out the problem. We can review and practice until the student understands his mistakes and is able to correct them.
Our goal is to learn. Our goal is not to take a test on Friday and then begin the next chapter on Monday, whether you understand the previous material or not. Teaching to mastery of the concept is academic excellence.
A test score is much like a litmus test. It helps us assess our situation: does the student understand the material? Can he effectively communicate what he has learned? Does he struggle with test anxiety? A failing grade simply means we still have much to learn in a particular area. A passing grade means we are ready to move on to the next lesson.
When you look at tests and grades this way, failure isn’t even part of the equation, not really. There is only progress, more progress, and success.
Tests in Our Lives outside of Homeschooling Testing
At the church my family attends, we are currently studying the Beatitudes. Near the conclusion of a recent message, our pastor shared that some theologians and commentators refer to the Beatitudes as a type of test: as Christians, we should be poor in spirit; we should mourn over sin and evil; we should be meek; we should hunger and thirst for righteousness; we should be merciful; we should be pure in heart; we should rejoice in the midst of persecution. When we examine our lives, do we find these things to be true of ourselves?
Concerned that the congregation might misunderstand the intent of this “test,” Brother Billy gave an example. As a homeschool dad, he explained, when he gives his daughter a test, his desire is not to fail her. His desire is for her to learn and for her to pass. He wants her to grow and to improve and excel.
I loved Brother Billy’s example. As a homeschool mom, it is one to which I can easily relate!
As a Christian, do I think God is waiting for me to fail? Am I afraid that He is going to whip out his red ink and stamp “FAIL!” across my life? When I do fail—which happens often—do I think, “Well, I totally blew that,” and then throw in the towel? Is this the attitude I have toward my role as a homeschool mom? Am I afraid of failure?
– OR –
Do I imagine that God is watching over me, eager to see me learn and grow and succeed so that He can say “Well done!”? When I do fail—which happens often—do I think, “Wow, God, I totally blew that. Please, let’s go over this lesson again. I need you to teach me more. Thank you for being so patient!”? As a homeschool mom, do I think God is eager to encourage me and to equip me to succeed?
Dear sisters, as Christians and as homeschool moms, we do not have to be afraid of failure. We have an excellent Teacher. His desire is to see us “pass,” and He will make sure that we do. He already used up all his red ink at the Cross.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.