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The Role of Grades, Levels, and Tests in the Homeschool

© Beverley Paine

Learning is a natural process which is inherently rewarding and satisfying. All too often children gradually learn to 'forget' this as we unwittingly destroy meaning in their learning by offering them inducements to learn things we believe to be important to their development. Eventually some children will only learn for the artificial rewards we have created, and see success in terms of what others have determined for them. If used out of context assessment can create these problems.

There are many ways to assess our children's progress without resorting to using tests or ascribing grades or levels to their 'work'. However, this type of assessment can be a useful tool in the educational process, and as such, has a place in the home school if desired.

Self-testing is very much a part of natural human development. Children enjoy testing themselves, and can achieve much satisfaction from knowing how they have improved in some areas over time. Recording of results, as scores or grades, is an essential aspect of this type of evaluation. A better idea is to retain a copy of the actual test itself, including meaningful evaluative comments and an outline of the purpose of the test. If children are themselves in control of this process so much the better. Include the children wherever possible, and explain to them beforehand your reasons for using any tests, grades, or levels.

There has been much written about the negative aspects of testing. Despite the growing body of evidence demonstrating its educational uselessness in institutional based learning, and possible harm to some students, schools and parents still insist on accepting the arbitrary 'score' as an indication of their children's skills, knowledge and understandings. Unfortunately, the wider community still recognise these scores as a part of a young person's ability to enter adult working life. For this reason alone, many home schooling families still worry about the necessity of grading and testing their children.

Used with care, and in a minimal way, testing and rewarding children with grades or other incentives, can supplement a home schooling program. In the home, without the risk of peer pressure and competition, most of the harm attributed to these methods disappears. It is important to consider your own motives for using these methods - are you simply substituting a graded system for a meaningful understanding of how your child learns, and thereby saving yourself some time in the daily management of your home, or are you supplementing an already comprehensive and varied learning program?

Tests can help children to evaluate their progress in a course of study, and are frequently included in sequenced educational texts. They can help children spot weaknesses in their work or reasoning. In this way tests can be used as signposts for learning, showing children where they are currently at in their skills and knowledge, and where they need to go or what to focus on next.

Open book tests are less stressful than timed tests that have no access to the material learned. If books are available during the test, the child has the opportunity to revise and learn the task. In these instances, you can record beside the work which areas needed help. The object of learning is to build skills and knowledge. Testing should reflect this aim, not simply mark achievement.

It is important to remember stress has a negative effect on a person's ability to reason and to think creatively. Different people react in different ways to stress. Very few people enjoy being tested by others, and almost everyone finds tests stressful in a negative way. Ask yourself if there is another way of obtaining the information required by testing. If giving a test is necessary, it is advisable to encourage your children to ask themselves how the test is helping them to learn, and for them to understand how the test score is calculated and what it means. This will help to keep the test within the context of learning.

There are many different ways you can test your children, from impromptu tests of knowledge or skills, to using standardised commercial tests in formal conditions. Children can be tested for aptitude, interest, learning ability, achievement, competency, and personality. A standardised test means your children's performances are being compared to the performance of similarly placed students. Often these tests have evolved using samples of only around a thousand students, generally from one location. This is hardly sufficient to give an 'average' or 'normal' performance. Many tests available originate in other countries and have a different cultural bias. This can influence scores and interpretation of results. Most tests are developed for school based students, who are accustomed to the style and format of tests, and are often designed for convenience of 'marking' and collating scores, rather than to gain any meaningful information about a child's ability and understandings. Some tests given to students are even designed to grade schools, not the students!

Before using any test, work out exactly what you hope to know as a result of the test, and evaluate the test before you use it on your child to see if it is appropriate and will achieve the desired goal.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine

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