Sunday, June 29, 2014

Homeschool FAQ Standardized Testing

Standardized tests, standardizing students.
One of the questions I’m often asked about homeschooling and unschooling is how I know if and what my kids are learning without testing. The most amusing part of this question is that I always scored at the top of the class in our IOWA testing from as early as second grade yet I’m not sure I learned much of real value in school. The high test scores and the many A’s, V plusses and O’s for Outstanding Effort simply documented how well I learned very little of real value.

But since most of the people who ask – and most who would read this - are truly interested and simply do not know, I will provide a serious answer. Here goes:

From a very young age, my son created stories while playing with army men, Thomas trains, Bionicles, Star Wars figures and other toys. He also read a lot of books, both with me and/or my wife and on his own. So when a creative writing class was offered in our homeschool group, and a number of his friends were taking the class, I figured he’d be very interested. But, no. Baffled, and like many parents, I wondered, “How will he learn how to sit down and write a story?” as if there were no other ways but sitting at a desk in a classroom.

The following winter, while driving home from skiing, he decided to read me a story from the back seat of the car. He’d just finished writing it – on his phone. It was in the Star Wars universe, had a clear introduction, plot and conclusion, and demonstrated language and vocabulary skills far beyond his years. The oral presentation rivaled the abilities of some of the students in my Speech Communications 210 class - in college. Though I still suggest taking creative writing and other classes in areas that he’s shown some interest, I began relaxing that day about whether or how he’d learn to write, or learn any other skill.

Then, last year, a post came in my Facebook feed from a Minecraft server. It offered discounts for playing on and donating to the server and the copy was so enticing and well written I had to tell the copywriter in person. Thankfully, I only had to go as far as my son’s room down the hall. Clicking through to his blog post, I was struck by how his posts had become stronger and stronger in the years since he’d launched the blog. The post had a purpose and a logical flow, proper sentence structure, grammar and capitalization, mostly, and appeared as professional as almost anything an adult who had taken a business communications class would post.

Without standardized testing or testing of any kind, I know exactly where he excels and where he hasn’t yet excelled. I know if he knows whether or not to capitalize seasons, places and proper names by reading his posts without forced memorization or silly rules like I before E that rarely apply enough to be of much value. I know the extent of his vocabulary and can help him touch up or clarify where to put a comma in a more meaningful way than drudging through repetitive worksheets night after night from an English textbook. This purposeful approach also helps ensure the knowledge is retained into adulthood.

These examples should have put my mind at ease that he was learning just fine. But we parents seem to feel an educational clock ticking, as if we only get until age 16 or so to instill proper habits and feel sure of their ability to survive in the real world. So when a couple of days went by where it was eerily quiet in his room, I went in, fully expecting him to be hard at work on his Playstation. “What’re you working on?” I asked. “I’m writing a book,” he said.

“Oh. Ok…”

He and a friend were collaborating online on a sci-fi thriller. They were 1,800 words in. As I write this, they’ve finished a prologue and four chapters. Occasionally, he checks with us to verify proper usage of quotation marks. Otherwise, I don’t think having him take a standardized test will reveal much about whether or what he’s learning compared to what I already know.

“Well, Paul, that’s great, he can read, write, speak and work well with others. But what about calculus?” you ask, as if reading, writing and speaking doesn’t already document that he’s better educated than most college graduates in America today. Well, I suppose that if he’s ever interested in calculus, or needs to take calculus to pursue a particular degree or profession then he would take calculus, most likely online.

Over the years, I’ve found the surest way to know whether and what kids are learning is to talk with them and listen to what they say, and, especially, to what questions they ask. This approach requires letting go of the demand that kids must learn given skills or memorize bits of knowledge on an arbitrary, societal schedule, from potty training by pre-school to calculus by high school. With this approach, you not only uncover more information than any test could but you also may find you like being with your kids.

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