Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Are standardized exams really necessary?

How do homeschooling parents know their children are learning? The answer to this question is, to put it most simply, direct observation. I have only one child. If a teacher had only one child in her classroom, and was unable to describe the reading skills of that child, everyone would be dismayed -- how could a teacher have such close daily contact with one child and miss something so obvious? Yet many people unfamiliar with homeschooling imagine that parents with just this sort of close daily contact with their child require outside evaluation to determine that child's progress. This puzzles homeschooling parents, who cannot imagine missing anything so interesting as the nature of their child's learning.

-Jan Hunt, Ph.D., How do you know your (homeschooled) children are learning?

I recently was involved in a discussion with a person who insisted that homeschoolers who don't wish to have their child evaluated must be hiding the fact that these children aren't learning. I couldn't fathom where the idea originated. Perhaps they were convinced that No Child Left Behind implied all children weren't learning? Or perhaps they tended to be highly suspicious. After reading the above article, it became clear.

Parents whose children are at school all day may or may not have a clear idea of what their children are learning. Their teachers may not, either, given they may be juggling the abilities of 20-30 children at once. My sibling managed to get through three years of elementary school without being able to read. No one noticed!

Aside from the point that parents make direct observation, there really is no compelling reason for a homeschooling parent to compare a child against national norms until they are probably in their teens. Children often learn at different rates, and many homeschoolers have the luxury of giving their children time to learn at their own rate. This is a great benefit to the child.

According to David Elkind, Americans are tied to the notion that education is a race:

Although Head Start is an important and valuable program, it gave rise to the pernicious belief that education is a race - and that the earlier you start, the earlier you finish. This encouraged educators like Carl Bereiter, Siegfried Engelmann, and, more recently, E. D. Hirsch to introduce early academic programs based on the learning theories of E. L. Thorndike and B. F. Skinner. These writers assume that learning follows the same principles at all age levels-ignoring both children's developing mental abilities and the fact that academic skills vary in their logical complexity and difficulty.

One of my arguments in not testing children at such young ages is that this is quite harmful to their self-esteem and desire to learn if they are constantly compared with their peers and don't measure up. The implication seems to be that if they can't learn something right away, they will never be able to learn it.

This reasoning is faulty. Learning to read, for instance, requires a multitude of skills, such as decoding symbols and having the physical ability to focus and move the eyes correctly. It sounds easy, but for small children, it is a serious challenge. Forcing a child to read when they don't have the physical or mental ability will only cause a resistance to learning in the child.

I do believe there are compelling reasons to test a child earlier. If a child has a strong desire to learn, it is helpful to know if the child is gifted. Parents of gifted children, especially parents of exceptionally- and profoundly-gifted, may need to understand where their child's unusual drive and energy come from. Testing provides the benefit of providing the gifted with educational opportunities as well.

If a parent suspects a child may have learning disabilities, it is almost certainly helpful to find out how the child can and cannot process information so that a curriculum can be adjusted to cater to that child's abilities.

And there are children who are both...and sometimes the enigma of these children is only solved when the child is tested.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but for the most part, children need to be given time to learn. As they come closer to adulthood, they probably would benefit from learning where their abilities are relative to where they want to be in order to attain certain career goals, for instance. There is also the issue that test-taking is a skill, and most students will have to deal with our society's obsession with quantification through exams. They will need to take tests at some point or another, and practice at this skill is essential for success.

At one point during my time as a homeschooler, I had to give my son a standardized exam to comply with state homeschool regulations. I was both amused and disappointed with the results. He aced the exam, which was designed for his chronological grade. However, I was very disappointed that it didn't provide information as to what his achievement level really was; it merely stated that he was achieving at the top level for his grade.

I could have told them that without the silly test. All they had to do was ask!


Adso of Melk said...

I think that the observation that education is a race is very possibly what lies behind the bigotry against providing meaningfully differentiated gifted education, including acceleration. After all, if it's a race, aren't accelerated children being moved "ahead" of the others?

Interesting ideas.

SmallWorld said...

Great post. My kids have never done standardized tests. I've always felt that *I* know where my kids are and how they are doing--why does anyone else need to know this? My 15-year-old took his first standardized test a couple of months ago. He had to take the national ACT in order to do dual credit enrollment at the local community college. He needed to get a 19 composite in order to be accepted. He did much, much better than that. Was I proud of him? Yes. Surprised? Not one single bit.