My children were different from the beginning. They read voraciously, covering topics far and wide, with no subject apparently too boring or trivial for them. They took what they learned and eagerly passed on their newfound knowledge to others because they found learning a fascinating hobby and assumed everyone else would be just as curious as they were. Quickly, one of my highest goals became somehow keeping that love of learning alive in them forever. Many years later, I feel we continue to reach this goal in our homeschooling through avoiding the dreaded test mentality.

To illustrate how knowledge and competence in a subject can be verified without testing, think about the way children study music. Perhaps your son begins with the clarinet when he is 10 years old. He takes private lessons once a week with a local teacher. He practices every day, sometimes with energy and enthusiasm, sometimes with a bit of nagging. He progresses through various exercise books, mastering increasingly harder scales, acquiring vocabulary in several foreign languages, and developing the ability to maintain challenging rhythms. He listens to CDs of different composers’ music and realizes they all have their individual styles. He works through and polishes some of his favorite pieces, and gradually he organizes the composers into appropriate groups in his mind.

Your son performs once or twice a year in recitals with other students, and you proudly applaud his efforts. He discovers, one way or another, how best to handle his nervousness before a crowd. He begins to channel that adrenaline into his performance, and you watch him gain confidence. He auditions for a community youth orchestra and is thrilled to earn a spot. He realizes that playing in a group requires cooperation and teamwork, precision and balance. As he grows older, he joins the community band as well.

Your son continues with his private lessons, though they are much longer and more intense these days. He takes some music theory classes at the local community college, and he starts attending summer music camps that are focused exclusively on his instrument. He begins composing his own music, and perhaps he even takes on a second instrument at this time. Soon he convinces several friends to join him in creating a chamber wind ensemble. By the time your son is a high school junior in your homeschool, he and his group are performing at community events and weddings, and they are recording their own CD.

Your son does not plan a full-time career in music. He actually wants to be an architect. However, he has followed one of his passions in a natural way, and he has benefited tremendously. He may teach private lessons in the future, he may continue to perform at special events on the weekends, and he may use his talents in Christian ministry someday. He will probably stay involved with various community bands and orchestras throughout his life, giving him both enjoyment and outreach, and he might just go on to compose some wonderful music of his own. One day he will pass on his skills and his love of music to his own children.

Notice, however, that your son did not need to take tests to “prove” that he was learning to play and love music. His constantly growing knowledge in this area was evident in many different ways. It was obvious to him, to you, and to everyone even remotely involved in his life—your son was learning music. The one time he had to take tests was when he enrolled in the college music theory program. This does not imply that the mastery of music theory can only be demonstrated through tests. It simply reiterates the point that tests were developed for group class environments. The teacher does not have time to discuss music theory with each student individually.

If you pause to think about it, you will realize that we approach the learning of many other subjects in this same holistic way. Not many people feel the need to verify progressing skills in needlework, baking, car repair, painting, carpentry, childcare, jewelry-making, or gardening through testing. Each of these areas requires a great deal of detailed knowledge and many hours of ongoing study and practice, but the proficiency gained and the excellence achieved are not shown through tests, but rather through a variety of independent, expressive, and practical means. In fact, our middle school and high school students can demonstrate their grasp of nearly any subject area without the need to resort to tests.