Monday, May 21, 2012

Testing and Homeschooling

It was an interesting week for me.  I walked into it apprehensive with certain ideas about testing.  I walked out of it with very different ideas and comfortable administering standardized tests.

I have not had an overly positive perspective of testing because of my public school teaching background.
In the public schools, such huge importance is placed on the results of standardized tests.  Teachers are judged by them.  Students are judged by them.  Teachers can lose their jobs by them.  The problem though is that we are not all created the same.  God didn't make us all equals.   Our strengths are not identical!  So, how can all children be judged by the same measure?  Okay, now I'll get off my soap box.  Knowing that I'll feel this way, you'll probably be surprised to hear how my adventure in testing turned out this week.

As this year was beginning, I thought about what I could contribute to the homeschool umbrella (oversight group) that I'm a part of.  I knew I could qualify to be a tester so I thought I would propose that as my commitment to the umbrella.  I applied to Bob Jones to be a tester and was approved to administer the ITBS and the Stanford tests.

As the year progressed, I felt more and more apprehensive about administering the ITBS.  I even thought it would be better if I tested with some other folks first before I did it on my own.  But, several moms wanted to test in the umbrella so I knew I needed to follow through!  I talked to one gal who had conducted the testing for the umbrella before, but I was still anxious.

I took one step at a time and trusted the Lord.  I ordered my daughter's test and emailed the other families the ordering information they needed.  Everyone got their orders in and I waited.  The week before our scheduled testing date, the tests arrived.  I checked the box to make sure everything was in it and looked over the instructions that Bob Jones sent.  Then, I set aside the box until the morning of the tests.  I scheduled the tests to go over 4 days (it was the ITBS plus the CogAt--Cognitive Abilities test).

The first morning I was nervous, but after everyone sat down, I passed out the tests.  And we got started.  I followed the directions and the students took their tests.  I also saw that the Lord was right there alongside me. I don't believe in chance.  I believe that the Lord is in control.  So, there were some neat things I saw happen and several lessons I learned.

1) When I sat students down, I made sure that no one was sitting by anyone who was taking the same grade test.  Only two students were at the same large table taking the same grade test and I put a vase of flowers in the center of the table.  This worked well.

2) Next time, I will ask parents ahead of time if their children are quick readers or if it takes them longer to read what they need to.  I am thankful that the students who were the quickest to finish all were at the same table.  It is discouraging to students if everyone always finishes ahead of them.

3) On the last day, I heard one student comment about how easy a test was.  I hadn't heard this discussion earlier in the week, though I wish I had!  I addressed it with the whole group.  I explained that we all have different strengths.  One test may be easier for someone and harder for another, but the opposite may be true for another test.  When we say things like that, it can make other people feel bad.  We may not mean to, but we say things about how easy something is simply without thinking of others.  I gave them two examples of this.  1. I did the same thing when I was in 8th grade and several girls told me never to talk to them.  I didn't realize what I was doing and that it bothered them so much.  2.  My husband knew just where the A/C filter was and I had no clue!  But, I painted the walls and painted straight lines around the ceiling without tape.  Different people, different strengths.

4) Put a piece of paper between the front and back of the test, so that the pencil lead doesn't bleed through onto the back during the test.

5) Teach them how to fill in a bubble.  Make circular motions to fill the circles in without going outside of them.

6) Don't pack the schedule too tight.  Stop by 12:30 p.m.  The morning is the best time for testing.

7) Explain the difference between social studies and history.  Both subjects are intended to help students understand their world.  Social studies starts from the student out.  Picture a bulls-eye.  Individual, community, city, state, country, world.  History starts at a certain point in history and moves forward chronologically.  Many homeschool students study history rather than social studies (like public schools) so the social studies test will be very foreign to them.   

As for the benefits of testing?  Is it a worthwhile experience?  Yes.  Definitely, yes.  I would recommend testing to homeschoolers.  I don't want my school district to have records on my child (it's not required in my state), so I am willing to pay for the test myself.  It's free if I wanted them to take our state's tests.

What do I see as the benefits?

The state looks to the tests for the results--to tell how students are doing and what they know.  I actually think the tests are a poor assessment of this.  I wouldn't look to the ITBS or the Stanford 10 to do this.  I watched all of the students.  I observed them.  

So, if not the results, why would I want to test?

1)  Learning how to fill in the circles.  They are going to take tests all of their lives and they actually need to know how to do this and practice it.

2)  They need to practice taking timed tests in a non-stress environment when grades and other things (ie. college entrance) are not dependent upon the results.  It will help them feel more comfortable down the road when the stress is there.

3)  They need to understand how to take a test.  For example, two of the students whispered to themselves out loud during a math test to themselves without realizing it.  I spoke with each of them to tell them to stop.  But, they needed to know they did this.  Homeschooling is different than the classroom setting and sometimes as moms we don't know what will happen in a classroom setting.

4)  They need to experience a classroom setting for testing like they will many, many times down the road.  They need to learn not to look at other people's tests and not be concerned about how others are doing.  

5)  They need to learn how to think of others and not go on and on about a test if it is easy for them.  

6)  It is good for them to practice switching gears quickly between questions and the topics being tested.  

7)  It is good for them to be surprised by something they don't know how to do and learn to try the problems.  This will happen to them over and over in different settings and environments.  One of the biggest weaknesses I saw in my students in school was the inability and even refusal to try a problem they hadn't seen before.

8)  The same types of problems on these tests will be on the SAT/ACT and other standardized tests down the road if they go to college.  As homeschoolers, we don't teach to the test and so our students are usually unfamiliar with the way they ask the questions and they types of questions they ask.

9)  A real test is more valuable than a practice test (also available from Bob Jones) for reason #7.  A practice test mitigates this experience and challenge.  It may give more accurate results of the knowledge they have, but it depends on what your purposes for testing are.  

10) The results can be helpful.  It can give you an idea of how your children do on standardized assessments.  I wouldn't put a huge amount of stock in them, but they can give you ballpark ideas.

11)  I shared with my students about when to guess and when not to, what an educated guess is, and that you need to know if guessing penalizes you or not.  If guessing penalizes you (if the answer is wrong), then don't guess unless you can narrow down the choices.  

12) You and your children need to know that you don't have to be afraid of standardized tests.  As homeschoolers, we are very apprehensive, often with good reason, about our competence as homeschoolers being judged by the results of tests our children take.  I was a public school teacher and the reality is that many public school teachers do feel threatened by homeschoolers.  There is the unspoken statement that parents think they can do a better job than the teachers--that's why they are homeschooling.  This threatens public school teachers security in their jobs.  We also take funding away from the schools in our areas when we keep our children home--since they receive funding based on the number of students in their schools.  I remember asking a reading specialist at a local school for suggestions about how to help my daughter who reads way to fast and skips words.  I was amazed at how quickly I felt defensive and insecure I felt about my homeschooling because of how this teacher spoke to me.  I even have my master's degree in education and am a licensed teacher!  I still felt insecure.  I have never forgotten this experience, though it happened 2 years ago.  All that to say, we don't need to be afraid.  We are teaching our children and if our children are severely deficit in some skill it will come out on the test.  That is a good thing!  Then we can address it and remediate it by using a supplement to our curriculum or adding a few lessons to help our students in a weak area.

12)  It is good for students to test in a safe environment that is not their home and listen to other adults.  It's good practice and a good experience.  

So, those are my very long thoughts about why it is a valuable experience for students to test.  If your state doesn't require testing, I'd encourage you to think about it.  It isn't necessary every year.  Public Schools only test every other year.  And I wouldn't test before third grade.  

One last note, I would recommend the ITBS over the Stanford tests because the Stanford is no longer timed and I think that's one of the positive benefits of the experience of testing.  Also, grades 3-9 can be tested together for the ITBS, but the Stanford has smaller testing grade groups.  It's easier to manage the ITBS.  

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