Thoughts on testing…

The title would more aptly be A Lot of Thoughts on Testing.  Can’t help it.  The discussion over the past two days really has me thinking.

In general, I think the primary reason for testing is to provide feedback.  How well is the student learning what you want him to learn?  How well is the teacher teaching what you want her to teach?

When I was a high school teacher, with thirty kids in a class, and 40 minutes in a class period, I needed tests to get that feedback.  I didn’t have time to sit down with each kid after each concept to determine how well we were doing.  And a well-designed test (which is more difficult to construct than you might expect), along with other types of assessments, can give you some of that info.

But when you are homeschooling, as Wendy pointed out in her comment yesterday, what’s the difference between a test and an oral report? Or a test and a worksheet?  Or a test and asking them to tell Daddy what we learned today about the Warring States Period?

I haven’t given Zach a test on calendars.  But in September, he couldn’t set up the calendar pocket chart by himself and now he can.  I haven’t given Ezra the kinds of excellent reading assessments that teachers have access to in schools, but every day he reads a little better.  How do I know?  Because at the Dunkin Donuts yesterday, he read the word neighborhood on the drive thru window.  Zach shouted, “Oh my gosh, Mom!  Did you know Ezra could read the word neighborhood?!!!”  Ezra was in the backseat beaming.  If it had been a test, I would have given them both an A+ — Ezra on reading and Zach on being a good big brother.  We get a ton of opportunities all day long to see what they are learning and how it compares to what I hope to be teaching.

Walking down the street today, we bumped into our neighbor Marc. We share a backyard with him, and the boys have wanted to ask him if they could set up a beehive in the backyard.  Zach blurted out, “Marc! Um, we want to set up the bees.”

Marc looked confused and I saw that Zach still doesn’t understand how to think about what information the listener needs to understand his communication.  After I explained a bit of what the kids wanted, Marc had lots of questions.  All of which the boys could answer.  Which let me know that Daddy was doing a good job with the science of bees, and Mommy had a long way to go helping Zach with his productive language skills.

I check in every few weeks to see how we are doing on my list of objectives for the year. And I make adjustments when it seems we might not reach one by June.  Given my tendency to fear that my kids are hopelessly behind other kids, I don’t think I’ll fool myself into thinking we’ve learned more than we really have.

I’m just not sure that tests, as we regularly conceive of them, are the best ways to assess learning and teaching – except when we have to do it for large numbers of people.  Think of Socrates.  His method – of asking questions, hearing answers, and asking more questions to push the student’s thinking further – is often considered the epitome of good teaching.  And there were no “exams.”  The entire process was an exam – an examination of thinking, where it went right and where it went wrong.

Think about all of things that you care most about your children learning, habits of mind and character.  You never think about testing them.  You observe them every day.  And you notice where they are falling short of your expectations.  And if you are like me, you realize that you are not actually doing a very good job of teaching and modeling the habits you care about.

Okay, so you’ve probably figured out that I don’t buy the idea that I need tests to figure out if the boys are learning or to give them opportunities to show what they know.  But readers wrote in with other concerns about the lack of tests.

First, Syndi wondered if Massachusetts didn’t require testing.  I have read in several places that Massachusetts was one of a handful of states that make it difficult to homeschool.  But that hasn’t been my experience.  There are two cases that went before the Massachusetts supreme court, Charles and Brunelle, and that guide homeschooling policies in our state.  Together, the two cases indicate that school officials and parents should agree on a method of evaluation that may include one of the following approaches: standardized testing, periodic progress reports, or dated work samples. (Charles) Home visits may not be required as a condition of approval. (Brunelle).  Our plan, approved by the school district, states that we will provide dated work samples upon request.

Second, many commenters noted that the boys would need practice taking standardized tests and more typical classroom tests.  This is undoubtedly true.  But I’m not yet convinced that second grade is the time to start that practice.  Part of the reason I love homeschooling is that we don’t have to rush the boys into things that they aren’t ready for developmentally.  And given Zach’s high levels of anxiety these days, why not wait until we make some progress on that front before we add more stress “just for practice.”  We have lots of opportunities to practice handling stress already.  Too many.

I liked Shannah’s idea of giving them a task to do, and at the end of it saying that what they just did was essentially what a test would be like in school.  Given that it’s in the back of Zach’s mind as a worry, it might help to demystify tests a bit.

So, if we keep homeschooling beyond this year, when will I introduce testing?  I’m not sure yet.  But I can tell you that it will be sooner than it would have been without having had this discussion.

THANK YOU to everyone who reads this blog, even if you never comment.  Knowing I have committed to writing regularly has kept me accountable in ways that I definitely would not have been without it.  THANK YOU to everyone who writes in with thoughts, questions, critiques and encouragement.  Most of the ways our little homeschool looks different today than it did three months ago are due to your feedback.

A for all of you.

A+ for Anne Boyd (see her comment yesterday to learn how you too can earn extra credit)

(Taking the weekend off.  See you Monday.)

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  • Oooh, hooray! thanks for the A+! 🙂

    And I just read another homeschooling article that touches on this topic — I think you'd like it:

  • I forgot to tell you how psyched I was that you liked my idea!! And that this blog exercise got you thinking. The internet is amazing.