How Do We Know What They Know?
- Thursday, October 23, 2008
A persistent fear lurks in the minds of many parents who homeschool teens. Will our choice to let our high school kids remain at home backfire? How do we know our students are actually learning what they need to learn? Will we fail them in our efforts to help? Will they resent us down the road because they cannot find a job? Will they know what they need to know? Will they be ready to make a difference in this world?
All too well, the majority of us realize that we recall very few of the detailed facts we memorized and regurgitated throughout our own school days. Did we learn anything worthwhile? We certainly took enough tests to “prove” our education. Yet did those tests reveal a deep knowledge of the subjects we studied? And can we now remember any of what we long ago spat back in true-or-false answers and multiple-choice circled letters?
In my last column, I discussed the tests that most high school students who apply to four-year colleges are required to take. I wrote about these tests to give parents an overview: the differences between the various tests, what they are supposed to measure, and the many particulars involved with them. However, if reading through that article made you feel uncomfortable, confused, or even annoyed, I want you to know you are not alone. It might surprise you, but when I read that article myself, I cringe. Why? Simply put, I think most tests are a sad waste of time and energy.
Granted, for a student to be awarded a hefty academic scholarship, high scores on those college entrance tests (SAT I & II, ACT, or AP) are sometimes a necessary evil. It is also true that many colleges require applicants to earn solid scores on one or more of these tests to gain admission, and this is especially so for homeschooled students. However, these undeniable facts do not change my experienced (though admittedly biased) opinion: most tests are shallow, stressful, overrated nonsense.
I hope you understand I am not criticizing those who live in states that require students to take annual (or semi-annual) standardized tests throughout their school career. Unless your family moves to a state friendlier to homeschooling, you have little choice in this matter. I am also not passing judgment on those who give their youngsters weekly spelling quizzes and history chapter tests. As homeschooling parents, we are the teachers of our own schools; we are free and responsible to make choices such as these based on our own research and beliefs. If regular testing is working well in your family—if your kids enjoy it, and you feel the whole process is enriching the educational environment in your home—then far be it from me to say you should change.
However, I still hold to the belief that spewing forth a hodge-podge of facts in an artificial, timed setting does not prove that a student has really learned anything. People sometimes find it strange that I feel this way, since my kids have done extremely well on these academic tests and have earned large scholarships at excellent colleges. Many assume I must place a heavy emphasis on testing throughout our homeschool years for my high schoolers to achieve such outstanding results. Actually, until they apply to colleges, my children have no experience with testing at all.
I believe that the early years of a child’s life are best spent in exposure and exploration, with a good dose of excitement regularly thrown into the mix. Certainly my kids learn how to read, write, and “do” math. However, when we began homeschooling 17 years ago, it never occurred to me to give tests to measure the kids’ progress. Their understanding of what they were learning was clear in many ways.
For instance, my children tend to talk non-stop about whatever they are studying at any given time. To be honest, in the beginning, this trait bothered me. I thought I was just as interested in learning new things as anyone else. I considered myself a highly inquisitive person. Then my children started bombarding me with the hundreds of engrossing facts they were absorbing about atoms and portcullises and spiders. They started regaling me with story after story about Churchill and the pyramids in Egypt and the lost colony of Roanoke. Upon deeper reflection, I realized I had spent my school years merely studying to ace the tests. I had earned my coveted A grades, but so much of what I studied had been mine for only a few weeks . . . or even just days. I had never really enjoyed learning for the sake of learning.
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