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The Value of Testing

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By Beth Waltman

We home educators have an opportunity to handle test-taking at our own discretion. However, before we throw out tests entirely, we must evaluate whether tests help or hinder in the learning process. There are occasions when testing is essential, as in some of the following cases:

  1. You are unsure of the level curriculum to choose for your student.
  2. You are preparing your child for entry into a private or public school
  3. Possible learning disabilities are being manifested
  4. The student is approaching college age.
  5. Your state laws require standardized achievement testing.

Many educators object to all the emphasis on test-taking, just as homeschoolers do. Test-driven courses seem to enhance short term memory rather than grasp of concepts. As soon as the questions are answered, the facts may be forgotten. But if a student has to know enough about a topic to deliver a 5-minute lecture, he retains the material. So perhaps there are more accurate ways to measure learning than through testing. Some evaluations even enhance the learning process.

Test-taking is an ability in itself. Great scores on tests can be a measure of the ability to eliminate nonsense choices or other abilities that don't relate to proficiency. Poor scores can reflect test anxiety. If your child faces upcoming mandatory testing to satisfy state requirements, you might consider a brief test-taking orientation.

After two years of trying to conduct homeschool like a miniature public school, I dropped virtually all testing. I found that high test scores reflect comparison of one student with peers. Without peers, it was difficult to judge whether the kids were learning adequately or whether I was teaching adequately. High scores cannot measure the student's actual performance vs. his potential ability. For example, if my child/student made a 97 on the test, yet I felt that he didn't really grasp the overall concepts, the 97 was an irrelevant number. In fact, my oldest child who spent 8 years in public education had to unlearn many poor mental habits. When I would verbally quiz her about her comprehension, she would counter with this argument: "I don't understand it, but who cares? I got the right answer."

Getting the right answer is not enough. My middle daughter found that all her Latin and Greek work enabled her to take biology tests without studying. She took an entire year's worth of biology tests all at once, just for fun. Without cracking the book, she made no less than 80% on 12 tests without ever reading and understanding the material. This convinced me that Krystal is not a science whiz, but a test-taking genius. Of course, I insisted that she studied the material and present her knowledge to me in a way that I could accurately evaluate.

Measuring real mastery of a course can be accomplished in ways other than testing, but other methods cause more creative work for the parent/teacher. Oral or written reports and art projects or multi-media presentations can clue parents in to the child's understanding of current study. Documenting grades for future college entrance is an important part of homeschool record-keeping. So even when a parent chooses not to test frequently, some basis for record grades must be established.

The Longs of Virginia put little emphasis on tests in home-education of their three children. So when Stephen, the oldest, prepared for college without ever taking the Preliminary SATŪ (PSAT), they didn't know how his scores would measure up. He did some practice SAT work at home. When he completed the actual test, he scored 1400. Not all students will have similar success, but rigorous testing couldn't have improved Stephen's ability much. The Longs say that they are testing their youngest, Marianna, more frequently than they did Lydia or Stephen, but they use results simply as a gauge to judge comprehension. Grades and scores are not emphasized.

One valid reason for testing children is that some states require all the testing for homeschoolers that their public school counterparts endure. In Pennsylvania, where we first began to home-educate our kids, we had to test in the 5th, 8th, and 10th grade. The Iowa test was acceptable. This test can be purchase online from various sources. The California achievement test is another option. In Texas where Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) gives public educators a uniform standard and often a headache, home schools are considered private schools. Therefore, parents can choose whatever they wish, to test or not to test.

Parents should be alert to their student's retention. If the child appears to have difficulty with reading or math comprehension, or if physical problems such as poor vision or hearing are indicated, your child may need to see a specialist. While we have more flexibility to allow our children to learn at their own pace, we also have responsibility to prevent learning disabilities from becoming life-long handicaps. Parents can subtly test and retest when a problem is suspected.

At their most useful, tests are tools. There are occasions when testing is useful for determining aptitude or subject readiness. Spelling skills and math problem-solving practically require testing. But in subjects such as history and sociology , students can demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways. The end result of successful evaluation is real knowledge acquired rather than a trophy of grades and scores.

Read also: To Test or Not to Test: Arguments For and Against Standardized Testing.

Copyright ©  2001 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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