In Romans 12:2, Paul writes: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (NIV).
Having taught in the public school system for almost ten years, I have experienced the hard-core, wrenching process of gearing up for state-mandated tests, SAT tests, AP tests, and even a school’s accreditation process. The stakes are high. A school’s funding level can be tied to test results. A community’s property values are often linked to students’ test scores. Students need to attain certain benchmarks to be eligible to attend the college of their choice. From a practical standpoint, tests are important.
As homeschoolers, we, too, may choose to rely on test scores as a measurement of our success or failure. Assessing our children’s progress is a good thing. It establishes benchmarks and allows us to chart development both in the short term and over longer periods of time. Our family has found assessment of our children’s learning via testing to be very encouraging. We have always been able to observe growth in both of our children in every subject area, and assessment has also helped us identify areas where a child may need some remediation. However, assessment is not limited to testing.
Before I proceed, allow me to say that I think it is valuable from time to time to acquaint students with typical testing protocol as part of the educational experience (e.g., types of objective questions, test formats, timed tests, and so on). At some point, it is likely that every student will be required to take some type of formal test (e.g., SAT, driver’s license, job and program applications). It is wise to equip students to be successful with these kinds of experiences.
One of the great advantages of homeschooling is that we are free to implement curriculum and assessments that are meaningful for our family. We are not limited to what we experienced as students in the public school setting. As a means of encouraging you to let go of the notion that the only way to properly assess your children’s progress is with a test, I would like to share our family’s experience of assessing our third- and fourth-grade children up to this point.
At the end of every school year, I prepare a portfolio for each of my children. It contains a sampling of work from each subject area. I select samples from the beginning, middle, and end of the year. Then I write a detailed narrative about their progress. The portfolio contains a general description of the child’s work and progress, and highlights particular strengths or weaknesses. I ask the children what they liked and disliked about the year, and I include their responses. I describe field trips we took, extracurricular activities in which they participated, and goals I have set for the future.
My husband, our school’s principal, reviews my narrative, and we both sign and date it. I put the narrative and work samples in a smart-looking folder with an official-looking label. I also prepare a separate folder with copies of each child’s narrative, our attendance record, field trip logs, and any other reports or documents worth keeping. Our state, California, requires that we keep certain documents each year.
It is so rewarding to look back over past years’ portfolios, to see how the kids progressed in their work, and to read about the fun trips we took. To me, that is what matters. In her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning”1 Dorothy Sayers asserts: “At the end of the Dialectic, the children will probably seem to be far behind their coevals brought up on old-fashioned “modern” methods, so far as detailed knowledge of specific subjects is concerned. But after the age of 14 they should be able to overhaul the others hand over fist.” I take this to mean that because we are following the classical approach, the subject matter with which we are engaging from year to year will not necessarily align with the curriculum framework espoused in the public school system, which, by the way, is completely arbitrary. We are not striving to demonstrate mastery of that framework.
Sometime during the next few years, we will probably have our kids take an objective test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, for informational purposes and to give them test-taking experience. The results will offer a glimpse of strengths and weaknesses that we can compare to our curriculum and goals. The test will not, however, be the ultimate measure of success or failure.
I have confidence that before we are finished homeschooling, our kids will far surpass their public school peers both in terms of content knowledge and the ability to think and learn independently. Our educational mission is to honor God by teaching our children about God’s world within the framework of his Absolute Truth. He is the One we aim to please.
1 You can read the full text of Sayers’ speech in Classical Christian Education Made Approachable.