Testing, testing, testing

Yesterday I read a nice essay about a homeschooling mom’s experience testing her kid. In her state, annual testing is required for homeschoolers. Since they’d taken an unschooling approach with their son, where he’d land was anyone’s guess.

My guess would have been that he’d do just fine, and that’s exactly what happened. Even while we believe that learning outside schools works, the prospect of testing still makes us quake in our boots. Why? Because we fear our kid won’t do well, thereby proving that our non-traditional, somewhat brazen, and some would say in-your-face decision not to send our kids to school was just what mainstream society said it would be–W-R-O-N-G?


We parents strive to get over that, because we know that testing isn’t an indicator of intelligence or even knowledge. Most of the time, it’s an indicator of how good the test taker is at taking tests. Having grown up taking more tests than we care to remember, we know that nerves or a bad day can change the results. We know that we can cram like crazy the day before, ace the test, and retain nothing. We know the ways the test creators try to trick us, and we know how to outsmart them. We know that tests are, on balance, unfair.

So why is it still so nerve-wracking when our homeschooled kids have to be tested? For one thing, it feels like they’re testing us as much as our kids. To most people in the world, the results are going to show whether we’re doing a good job, whether we’ve taught our kids what they need to know, whether we’ve disadvantaged them. That’s just more stuff we have to get over.

Even when we deschool enough to stop worrying about results of standardized tests, what about our kids? I remember years ago when my oldest child, now 32, took standardized tests for the first time at the age of 13. She’d been homeschooled except for grades three and four in a relaxed alternative school, and for three years she’d been unschooling. Together we worked on practice tests.

One of the reading comprehension selections was a poem, and as we were reviewing one of her “wrong” answers I pointed to the “right” one, to which she promptly replied, “That’s not what I thought.” I had to tell her that the test wasn’t about what she thought, it was about figuring out the “most correct” answer based on what someone else–i.e. the test creators–thought. In other words, in this situation, no one cares about your interpretation of the poem, you just have to fill in the “right” bubble.

When she was having trouble completing the reading comprehension in the allotted time, I suggested she not read the passage so carefully, but rather look at the questions first and make use of skimming and scanning techniques. “But it’s a reading test,” she replied. Touché.

I paid less attention to math, mostly because it’s not my strength. Besides, she had spent six months in a math group based on Math Counts, a program that only the most elite math students can gain access to in school. In our homeschooling community, someone decided to form a group and was recruiting, and my daughter decided to join. She loved the group and the homeschool dad that led it. As she described it to me they spent each weekly session on a single problem, attacking it from various angles. I had no idea how or if hanging out with friends and working on one advanced math problem a week would aid her in the testing process.

As it turned out, she did quite well. When it was over she turned to me and said, “How could I have done so much better than all those kids who go to school?” And that’s when I realized that no matter how relaxed we were at home, no matter how much she herself experienced the ridiculous nature of testing, she was still affected by the societal messages saying that school is the only place a person can become educated, and that how she performed on the test reflected her knowledge, intelligence, and worthiness.

Her brother avoided standardized tests by choosing a music school for college, but they did require a high school diploma which meant he had to take a high school equivalency exam. My third child also had to do that for one of the colleges she was applying to (another music school). They both passed easily and looked on it as a nuisance requirement they had to fulfill rather than an accomplishment, but the experience was a reminder that for a lot of the people in the room the test represented a major milestone and even after passing it they’d have to deal with the unfortunate stigma that exists around it.

My third and fourth kids who never went to school but did take community college classes as teens had to take the SAT for some college applications. I have never seen my third child as stressed as she was the week leading up to the test. She took it very seriously, preparing with as many practice tests as possible. She really wanted to get into the schools she was applying to, and she did. She’s now happily enrolled at Harvard, and I can assure you that while she did fine on the test, I don’t think her scores had much to do with her admission. Fourth child had a much more rebellious attitude about the whole idea of testing. She took the opposite approach and avoided any test prep at all. Her score was respectable for someone who just walked in the door with no practice, but she ended up taking the test again. She was also admitted to a school of her choice, a liberal arts college she opted not to attend, instead choosing the state school that offered her a full scholarship and took her community college credits.

It’s not uncommon for homeschooled kids to have fears about whether they could succeed in school. They know they’re doing something radically different than the majority of kids in their world. For as many times as they hear from their schooled peers, “Aw, you’re so lucky!,” they also run into kids or adults who put them on the spot and confront them with questions and quizzes. When they read books, go to the movies, and join community activities, the portrayals, topics of discussion, and jokes revolve around schooled kids. School is a social norm they don’t participate in, and they’re aware that many people look on that as a form of deprivation.

In my experience when homeschooled kids ask to go to school it’s always for social reasons. These social reasons can revolve around wanting to be in a tribe of agemates every day, but they also have to do with the fact that some kids just don’t want to feel different anymore. These feelings are normal and natural, and as much as I think school is not the optimal place for kids to come of age, sometimes going there is the right decision.

We homeschoolers know that education and learning can happen anywhere, but unfortunately we live in a world where education is equated with schooling. The more we parents deschool ourselves, remain aware of our own hopes and fears around homeschooling, and gain clarity and confidence around our decision to homeschool, the more we can be there to talk to our kids when they have questions or concerns about how they’re being educated, and the more we can help them deal with the inevitability of testing and evaluation.


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