Grading a homeschooled child’s assignments requires a proper understanding of evaluation and assessment. We need to understand—and effectively communicate to our children—the expectations of each assignment. Consideration has to be made for whether the assignment is to be assessed quantitatively or qualitatively; that is, with numeric evaluation or feedback.
As a homeschooling father, I have often reverted to what I know how to do—what I learned simply as a result of my own educational background. That reversion has led me to err in some of the ways I have attempted to educate and even evaluate my own children. Are we raising our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord if we are using a system of assessment that promotes an unnecessary level of competition between peers, resulting in either pridefulness or dejection? When we assess our children, are we actually assessing them according to the reality of the expectations we, hopefully effectively, have communicated to them?
If we are going to assess our children with the goal of correcting and edifying them, we must assess them well. We must communicate our expectations well, and stand by those expectations. We must assess our children quantitatively when appropriate, and we must assess them qualitatively when appropriate.
Depending on the assignment and its expectations, we can determine the form of assessment that is appropriate: Quantitative, Mixed, or Qualitative.
If a child is asked to learn a series of facts (like the names of U.S. Presidents), he has a clear understanding of what is expected. There are forty-four facts to remember, and he is required to remember and recite (or record on paper) those facts. In assessing the child and applying a grade, his parent can simply tell him he knew forty of the forty-four facts. That number can even be converted into a percentage, if desired. This numerical grade communicates to your child exactly what he did well and exactly what he needs to improve. It is important to remember, however, that your child will need to know what is expected of him. You may not require recitation of all forty-four presidents his first time out, for example. In the case of facts recitation, you would not assess him qualitatively, as in how well he memorized them—not without identifying that as a point of assessment in advance. In that case, your assessment (because of the expectations set for the assignment) would become a Mixed Assessment.
Some assignments, like the hypothetical assignment above, will require both quantitative and qualitative assessment. Not only am I assessing whether my child knows the facts, but how well he knows them. Can he recite them in a certain amount of time? (I had one child recite them all in one breath; trust me, she wasn’t even thinking about who came next—they just rolled off her tongue!) Can he recite them without pausing for more than one second (or two, or three) between names? I will assess the correctness of the facts quantitatively, but I will discuss how well he said them qualitatively. Again, he will need to know in advance what I am going to assess. Then, I will assess him based upon that expectation; I will give him concrete feedback, telling him what he did well and what he needs to fix. For example, “You recited all of them with an average of less than one second between names, except when you paused for four seconds before naming Lyndon B. Johnson.” If I required no pauses longer than one second, I would give him that feedback. I would then tell him that the assignment is incomplete and he needs to practice and attempt it again later. If I allowed for two or fewer pauses of more than one second, then I would give him the above feedback and tell him that his assignment is acceptable.
In an assignment like a speech or essay, the assessment is more likely to be strictly qualitative. Qualitative assessments also need to have clear expectations, and the assessment needs to be conducted in accordance with those expectations.
For example, in his essay, did your child include an introduction, enumeration, three points, and a conclusion? Did he include any of the learned and assigned rhetorical devices? If these are the only expectations clearly set forth, we should then make sure not to assess the child on whether he wrote as well as we would have liked. We must remain faithful to the expectations we have set. As we assess the essay, we make note of whether the expectations were met or not. We provide a qualitative assessment to our child in the form of oral or written feedback. We tell our child exactly—with concrete terms and specific examples—how to fix the essay, and then make him resubmit the corrected essay. This feedback may include positive feedback specifically identifying what he did well. It is not as helpful to say “good job” as it is to say “good introduction,” which is not as helpful as it is to say “the quotation you used in your exordium was gripping.” The negative assessment and feedback needs to be objective, because it is not helpful to say “work on your organization” when you could say “you put your conclusion after the introduction instead of after your three proofs.”
Giving your child numerical or letter grades is one of the necessary evils of education. At some point, your child will likely need a transcript of some sort. That transcript, by definition, will require numerical or letter grades. Scoring in this manner has the negative effect of causing our children to compare themselves to one another (a thought-provoking verse along these lines is 2 Corinthians 10:12) rather than comparing the progress of their own work over the course of their education.
As we consider quantitative assessment, we are in easy territory for assigning numerical grades. It is when we enter the territory of qualitative assessment that assigning numerical or letter grades becomes more difficult. Consider, first, that the only aspect of qualitative assessment that is necessarily helpful for your child is the concrete, specific feedback he receives. Letter grades may be helpful, if your child strives for excellence for the sake of the grade—some do, some do not–but they are not necessarily helpful. This may result in assigning letter grades without telling students what those letter grades are—that is okay. When you do assign them letter grades, do not do so in a way that unjustly assesses and grades them compared to peers or compared to some arbitrary feeling about how you think children in other educational systems would have done. Assess your children according to your realistic and clear expectations for them. Assess them according to what they have actually done, and how they have improved.
This probably does not make your life any easier when it comes to putting an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ on a transcript. It should, however, make your life easier when assessing individual assignments and students, and doing so in a way that both corrects and edifies them. After all, that is ultimately what we want to do for our children: build them up for their Lord and their God.
Thus far we have considered assessment from the perspective of you, the parent, assessing your child. In reality, we live in a world that is constantly assessing us and being assessed by us. We cannot wake up each morning, open our eyes, and see the light of day coming in through the window without assessing our observations and determining that we have indeed awakened post-sunrise. We may not assess this consciously, but we are assessing it. Likewise, your child cannot leave the house without being assessed by others for his dress, appearance, mannerisms, and so on. With this in mind, we need to do assessment in a way that teaches our children how to assess well and how to receive assessment well.
One of the ways we can teach them to assess well is to have them practice self-assessment. After your child has submitted a paper or given a speech, have your child tell you—this works especially well when the student is presenting in front of their peers in a community (within classes in the Classical Conversations programs, for example)—what he did well and what he did poorly. He needs to be specific, as above, and he needs to be serious.
Another way to teach students to assess well is to have them practice assessing their peers. When a peer has presented something to his community, let one peer assess what that child did well and another assess what that child can improve upon. The two peers thereby practice assessing—and if everyone presents, everyone should have an opportunity to be assessed as well as to assess positively and negatively. The child who presented also has the opportunity to practice receiving assessment. He learns how to accept a compliment and a criticism. When I practice this peer assessment in community, I do not let the student being assessed argue with his peers. He must simply receive and thank them for their assessments.
Finally, the child is assessed by you, the parent. This is assessment by a mentor. Mom, dad, pastor, grandparent, tutor, or some other mentor assesses the student’s work. He receives assessment from someone he should respect.
These three assessments—from self, peers, and mentors—provide the child with the most well-rounded and thorough feedback he can receive. The student can compare and evaluate the assessments and apply them in order to maximize what he learns. This provides feedback that actually helps.
One final thought with regard to feedback that actually helps our students. When we praise our children, and by “we” I mean when peers or parents or mentors assess any other person, we must be careful to praise the things for which he is actually responsible. When a child practices a virtue well, we praise the child. When a child possesses a gift, we praise God. Praise your child for his hard work and diligence. Praise God for gifting your child with being smart.