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How Do We Know What They Know?

  • Kim Lundberg Contributing Writer
  • Published Oct 23, 2008
How Do We Know What They Know?

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.

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.

Instead of undergoing testing, students can display their growing knowledge and understanding through a variety of excellent natural methods. For example:

     •   Discussion

     •   Creative writing

     •   Art

     •   Personal essays

     •   Speeches

     •   Drama productions

     •   Academic contests

     •   Debate (formal/informal)

     •   Science experiments

     •   Hands-on projects/exhibits

These are just some of the ways homeschooled students can demonstrate their progress. While you might agree that these types of evaluative tools are great for the elementary level, you also might wonder whether such “subjective” methods can be enough for high school students. Yet teens not only continue to learn apart from the rigors of periodic testing, they actually flourish. Without the restrictive parameters of constant testing, our teens can answer the call to dig deeper than the surface, to question the status quo, to develop ideas and dreams of their own.

We must remember that much of the grading done in traditional schools is itself quite subjective. “Subjective” does not equal “inferior” in any way. Most school teachers will admit that subjective grading is usually much more accurate in its estimate of a student’s true understanding of the material studied than any given test score. Consider which of the following assignments would more clearly reveal a student’s knowledge and insight into the various causes of the War Between the States: a 50-question fill-in-the-blank test or a creative writing project (a play, a short story, or a series of journal entries) in which the student must show both sides of the war sympathetically and realistically?

Obviously, the latter choice would provoke deeper research and analysis than merely studying for a test. Imagine also the sense of real accomplishment the students would feel after completing such a challenging project. It is often this kind of in-depth study that leads young people to self-analysis as well, forcing them to investigate their own worldviews, motives, priorities, and goals in life. Such subjective, long-term projects are more conducive to the serious study of most subjects, including literature, history, and even science. Why then do public high schools not adopt these methods rather than cling to their weekly quizzes and their end-of-chapter tests? One simple but very big reason: They do not have the necessary time.

Homeschooling families, however, do not have that problem. In fact, time is one of the three top advantages of homeschooling. The other two invaluable perks are flexibility and freedom. As parents of homeschooled high school students, we can provide our teens with the space they crave to delve deeply into their subject matter. We can allow them the blocks of concentrated focus required for such comprehensive studies. We can give them the time they need to immerse themselves fully in their work. Finally, we can step back, smile, and relax as our homeschool graduates dazzle us with all they have learned along the way. 



Kim Lundberg is the busy mom of 10 great kids. She and her family have been homeschooling for 16 years, and they make their home in beautiful northern California. Kim enjoys teaching drama, writing, and world history classes, as well as reading mysteries, baking goodies, camping, and listening to her kids talk, sing, and make music.

This article was originally published in the Sep/Oct ’08 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. For more great homeschool help, download our FREE report—The Secret to Homeschooling Freedom! Click here to download: