By Laura Simon

Like many parents and teachers, one of my biggest frustrations with the educational system is the testing. I’ve always felt it consumed too much learning time, I knew the results could be wildly skewed, and I hated how it drove every aspect of what happened in the classroom. When I left teaching to homeschool my own kids, I celebrated the fact that their schooling wouldn’t revolve around a test.

Well, it turns out that’s easier said than done, especially for a former teacher. North Carolina requires homeschooling families to administer one achievement test per year, a mandate I think is absolutely fair. After all, it’s helpful to get some outside perspective into how my children are doing; testing can help identify holes in the curriculum or unexpected deficits.

What surprised me is how hard it is to keep that yearly test from driving everything I do with my children. I don’t think I was fully aware of my test obsession until my Lego-crazy boys made me an offer: they promised me good test scores in exchange for a Lego mini-figures set.

I mean, I’m proud of their negotiating skills, but it also made me aware of all the times I’ve exhorted them to do something differently “on the test” or put a meaningful lesson off until summer because “it won’t be tested.” As the end of the year – and the testing date – approaches, I’ve caught myself trying to cram in more and more learning just to meet that deadline, even though a relaxed pace was one of my goals going into our homeschooling journey.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot during the spring break I didn’t really let my kids have (because the test is in May, foks!) and since I suspect I’m not the only mama in this boat, I’d like to share some of my realizations.

  1. A test is a road map, not a destination. This is so hard to grasp coming out of teaching, where testing data is used to determine consequences for students and teachers. In reality, a test ought to be used by the educator – you! – to determine the next best steps. My oldest son is not exactly an intuitive speller; last year’s test scores helped me see we needed to spend more time on spelling and less on math, where he was several grade levels ahead. I opted to fret about that spelling score, but I didn’t need to. A child’s education is a long journey, and each child completes milestones at a different speed.
  2. Tests are limited in what they can show. I’ve spent quite a bit of time teaching my oldest the basics of grammar, but none of that will show up on the test this year. Eventually, when he understands language well enough that it informs his writing, we’ll see the benefits in better writing scores. I know that his brain is primed to learn that grammar now, and It will be harder if I wait longer to cover. Probably half of what I teach my kids on a given day falls into this same category, but I’m laying a foundation that my kids will need down the road.
  3. Test scores reflect a lot more than knowledge. They tell me, for instance, that my 1st grader has a short attention span and wants to quit before he’s shown what he knows. I tend to think that’s pretty normal for the age, but test scores don’t take that into account. They also don’t account for the child who had bad dreams the night before or who got so nervous he felt sick. I don’t want to make excuses for my kids, but sometimes a child knows a lot more than the test reveals. That’s where your wisdom as the parent and teacher comes in: you know a lot more than that test.
  4. Every child learns at a different rate. My kid who struggled with spelling last year just had a literary metamorphosis. Some of his friends reached this point two years ago, and some of them won’t reach it for two more. Learning something early doesn’t guarantee efficacy at that skill. I personally was a really late reader, and I’m a voracious reader now. So if things are taking longer than planned, don’t let the test give you panic.

Remember, some of the most important reasons for homeschooling can’t be measured on a test. A test can’t tell you how strong your relationship with your child is. It can’t reflect the extra time for creative play, or the freedom to learn at a different pace. If you’re struggling with test anxiety, I hope this will help you keep those pesky tests in perspective. They’re useful tools, but not the only tools, and they don’t reflect the value of the education you’re providing for your child.

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