Friday, November 20, 2009

Test taking and home schooling

More than a month has gone by since I last posted. Sometimes, life gets busy, especially when you're home schooling, attending school yourself, caring for a friend's child, and making sure everyone gets to their activities and sports. Somehow, pursuing my extracurricular activities always comes last (and every once in a while, I need to get some sleep). I'm sure home schooling parents everywhere know what I'm talking about. The first home schooling conference I attended offered multiple workshops on time management. I should have known then that life was about to change!

Something that has been on my mind lately is the role of testing in the home schooling curriculum. So many parents have told me that they do not test their children. Many of them have good reasons (or perhaps they have good rationalizations). Some use the Socratic method and believe conversation provides them with an adequate measure of student learning. Others are unschooling. Still others say that their child does not respond well to testing for a variety of reasons: learning problems or disabilities, the stress of testing, tests' inability to measure actual learning, or memory problems. Some of these reasons may be valid, and home schooled students who are not given tests may learn just as well as home schooled students who are. Nevertheless, I can't help wondering if we are doing our children a disservice by not testing.

When developing my child's curriculum, I always think about our educational goals for her. Most simply, we want her to attend the college of her choice and to have a career that is financially, intellectually, and socially rewarding. (Of course, we have other goals for her as well, which I may share in a future post about life-long learning. Keep an eye out for it.)

Given these goals, what are the skills she needs in order to attain them? More specifically, what are the academic skills? Like it or not, she has to know how to take tests (among other things). In order to get into college, she will have to take the PSAT, SAT, and possibly the ACT. Once in college, she will have to take mid-term exams and final exams. If she opts for graduate schools, she may have comprehensive exams and orals.

Taking tests requires skills. Why do you think public schools are so busy teaching children how to fill in the little circles? Multiple choice tests require students a) be able to read, b) evaluate possible answers based on their knowledge and memory, and c) rule out unlikely answers, and d) choose the best answer. Fill-in the blank tests require recall. Short answer tests require knowledge and application. Essay tests often require the analysis and synthesis of information in order to produce a logical, well-organized response. Preparation for midterm and final exams require the student to master large amounts of information, have it available for recall, and be able to produce it when needed.

If I never test my child, how is she to develop these skills? How will she learn the necessary study skills? By giving her tests (and this year, I introduced mid-term exams), I am helping her to acquire organizational and study skills. She is learning to take notes as she reads materials; to create outlines; to review material and quiz herself; to use flashcards, charts and other graphic organizers; to develop hypothetical questions and answer them. She is learning to keep an organized notebook in which she can quickly and easily locate important information. By sometimes setting a time limit on a test, I am teaching her how to pace herself, to prioritize, and to use her time well. In response to short answer questions, she must identify the most relevant information and produce it. When responding to essay questions, she must synthesize her new knowledge to produce a coherent, well-organized argument supported by examples. She must learn how to "think on her feet".

Most importantly, she is learning self-discipline because studying for tests requires a great deal of self-discipline. Sure, she would rather be playing a computer game or reading a book in her spare time, but she is learning to postpone that short-term gratification in order to achieve her goals.

Home schooling provides parents the opportunity to do things differently from the traditional public school. We can tailor the curriculum and teaching methods to meet the needs of our individual children, but we must also provide them with the skills they will need to succeed outside of our homes. If your child is college-bound, test-taking is an important set of skills.