Springtime usually means "testing time" for homeschoolers. And if you're at all like me, it is not your favorite time of the year. Although standardized homeschool testing is a state requirement for many, it can easily become the most dreaded part of homeschooling. Why? Because many of us feel like test scores are a definitive measure of... well, something. Something, uh, important. Good scores mean we're doing a good job, and bad scores mean we're not. Or good scores mean our kids are really smart and bad scores mean they're not. Or good scores mean our children are learning what they need to know and bad scores mean they're not. Good scores mean homeschooling is the right thing for our children, and bad scores mean we need to shift to some other educational option. Right?
Um... no. There are so many complicated dynamics involved with student learning and testing, homeschoolers should be cautious about the determinations they make from test scores. Standardized tests are intended to show a student's progress relative to other students, by measuring specific skill sets for particular levels that apply to different students in different schools. And although standardized testing can be helpful to gain a variety of information about students, such as strengths and weaknesses in specific skills, progress over time, and how the homeschool student's skills in certain areas compare to those of students in the public school system, there are many reasons why standardized test scores should be used cautiously to determine homeschool students' overall progress.
- Many homeschoolers choose to homeschool specifically so they do not have to adhere to the standards of learning specified for students at any specific level. Although the goal is for students to have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills by the conclusion of their schooling, on any particular testing year, homeschool students may be far ahead of public school peers in certain areas, and not on the same level in others. Homeschool student progress, in other words, may not follow the same timetable as that which is being tested.
- Some students, particularly global and non-sequential learners with right-brain characteristics, know and understand information much more effectively than their test scores indicate. Issues such as difficulty with details, being timed, following sequential questions, being constrained to specific answers, anxiety, and other things can negatively impact students' scores - scores which do not accurately reflect their level of knowledge acquisition.
- Standardized tests, by nature of the fact that they must be "standardized" and normed for consistency, do not necessarily reflect what a student has learned. They often can, at best, demonstrate the student's ability to give accurate answers to specific questions (the memorization of facts). Homeschoolers generally do not "teach to the test" as often happens in public school settings. Although homeschool students may have a broader knowledge of a particular subject or skill area, they may not have studied a particular detail that is addressed on the test.
- Standardized tests often do not accurately reflect the learning of students with non-traditional learning styles, such as kinesthetic or hands-on learning. Students who may not perform effectively on a visually-oriented test may demonstrate superior learning in the same subject if allowed to, for example, present a portfolio or artistic display of a concept. Dialoguing is often a better way for a parent to assess learning.
- Whereas standardized tests can measure the acquisition of facts or pieces of knowledge, they often do not effectively measure a student's ability to use those facts well. Critical thinking and other high-level skills such as making inferences and connections, and the ability to innovate and be creative are not measured effectively by standardized tests, although these skills are, in many ways, the true mark of a well-educated person.
- Standardized tests do not give a good indication of extra-academic skills which many homeschoolers consider to be important to their student's progress and ability, such as money management, personal character, relational skills, or problem solving. Because many homeschoolers view these (and other) aspects as just as important as academic skills, test scores often do not adequately reflect the full scope of the homeschool student's learning.
So lighten up. If you choose to test your child (or are required to do so by law), be sure you understand what test scores really do and do not tell you. Use test scores to refine your work in a particular area with a child, to give you a benchmark for how your child is progressing in certain areas over time, or to give you a general awareness of how your child's progress in an area compares to that of students in the public school. But do not use them as indicators of your effectiveness as a homeschooler, the intelligence level of your child, or whether or not homeschooling is worthwhile for your family. Recognize the multi-layered, complex factors involved in learning, and how tests cannot possibly demonstrate the full picture of a child's progress. And resist the temptation to elevate academic progress, as indicated by answers to specific questions about specific topics on a test, over the progress made by your child in developing overall personhood. Homeschooling is, after all, not just about academic learning. It is about discipling children into becoming whole, responsible, self-sufficient persons (of which academic learning is just one part). And in the test of life, how the child does on the latter is what truly matters.