Tag Archives: assessment

Why We’re Practicing for Standardized Testing Now

I could rant and rail for a little while about standardized testing and how much I can’t stand it and how detrimental one size fits all approaches to assessment make me nuts, and how most multiple choice tests are the equivalent of a broken thermometer in terms of assessing student learning and potential, but I’ll just leave it at this…

I really dislike high stakes testing.

That’s why we’ve mostly avoided it in our homeschool. We did dip into doing a practice assessment test one year a few years back, but I wasn’t sure that we got much out of it. It didn’t tell me much and the kids hated it.

However, last year, I decided to have the kids take the ITBS, aka, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. It’s a relatively easy, nationally normed test.

It was a bit of a disaster. Not the scores. The scores were fine. The things they excel at, they scored highly on compared to their peers. The things they aren’t as great at, they scored mediocre, though not abysmally, compared to their peers.

No, the problem was Mushroom and his anxiety. Plus, it really brought home for me how little practice they’ve had on testing like this. They’re really bright at many things, but knowing how to game a multiple choice test and what sort of questions are on there just isn’t one of them.

That’s why, beginning this year, we’ve started prepping for the SAT and ACT, as well as generally prepping for any other standardized tests they might take in high school, such as AP exams.

I know. It’s a little nuts. They’re in eighth grade. However, this isn’t as far off as all that. We’re using simple prep materials and doing very little overall. We’re only spending half an hour a week on the weeks we do it. On the morning I go to yoga and they are busy with co-op for most of the day, they do a little practice and we go over it later.

My feeling is that you don’t want this to sneak up on kids. And while Mushroom and BalletBoy are smart, they’re not such academic superstars that they don’t need this explicit practice in order to excel. I would rather do this than spend a several months trying to pull up an unexpectedly low score that’s keeping them from their goals three years from now. Overall, I think a little bit spread over time goes a lot farther for both peace of mind and performance than a panicked need to cram beforehand.

However, the main reason is that I think it may genuinely take three years of occasional practice with this type of testing to get Mushroom to the point where his anxiety doesn’t sabotage him when he heads into a test that actually means something for his future, no matter what it may be. The best cure for a phobia is slow exposure. I don’t really understand how he acquired this one, having been so little exposed to this sort of testing and my having taken such pains to be gentle about the few exposures he has had. However, it’s a phobia and the process of getting used to it is definitely better if it’s done in a slow and deliberate way.

In the end, I still think standardized tests are a poor measure of a student. The ones that have been slapdash thrown together for Common Core are especially terrible and the barrage of multiple tests every year for students is harmful and not conductive for learning. However, as we go forward, at least a couple of standardized tests will be part of life for Mushroom and BalletBoy, so it’s only common sense to start preparing early so there’s time to be relaxed about it.

 

This Is Why We Do Portfolios

Mushroom hard at work.
Mushroom hard at work.

I often think of portfolios as being for me. Technically, I suppose, they’re for the threat of the state, but honestly, I taught in schools that used portfolio assessments and I came to believe in them strongly, which is why I would do them even if I wasn’t supposed to keep records of our education (which, by the way, are never checked).

I have an older post about how we do portfolios here. It’s probably due for an upgrade, but things are basically still the same. We toss everything into a box until portfolio time. Then we go through it and the kids choose their best work from all the art, worksheets, dictations, math workbook pages, projects, and so forth. They write a short self-assessment, I write an assessment, and then it all goes in the portfolio in plastic sleeves, which makes it look super neat and pretty.

Every time I do it, it’s a huge boost for me as a teacher. Homeschooling can be lonely, as they say. You don’t get feedback about how you’re doing and it’s easy to lose sight of how things are going. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere. Putting together the portfolio, with the list of all the books we read, field trips we took, and all those examples of work is such a huge boost. You can see the progress and it’s very gratifying for me as a teacher.

For the last few weeks, Mushroom’s anxiety levels have been up. He’s had trouble finishing up his work for the school year simply because he’s been so keyed up with worries about everything and nothing. The moment he started to go through his work, he lit up with joy. By the time he had compiled all his examples, he was glowing. Seeing all the work he did over the summer was a huge boost to his self-confidence.

I’m reminded how important it is to celebrate our kids’ work and how it doesn’t have to be done with anything but a figurative mirror. Having the time and space to pause and see what he had done was a great experience for him.

Testing, One, Two, Three…

testing

For the first time this year, we decided to have a go at “standardized testing.”  I chose not to bother with a “real” test.  We are fortunate to live in a place where we don’t have to test, so for this year, I just gave them a practice third grade test from a cheap test prep book.

When I first got into education, before I had kids, I went in with a total animosity towards nearly all forms of standardized testing.  Teaching history in a public school in Virginia under the SOL tests didn’t dissuade me from it either.  The tests were over-emphasized and poorly written.  It was hard not to want to rail against them.

Since then, I’ve come around about testing.  In context, I think it’s a good thing.  The problem as I see it is that these standardized tests have become the whole, overarching focus of public schooling when, in reality, they are one small measurement.  I often say that they are the thermometer of education.  Useful, but not a complete picture of health.  For that, you need x-rays, blood panels, swabs of various sorts, weight and height, and so on and so forth.  Well, I already know my kids’ weight and height and so forth, so I decided that third grade was a decent time to take a practice temperature reading.

My main goal was simply to introduce the idea of testing.  They learned to bubble in, which was an amusing skill they lacked (they initially wanted to circle the answers).  To make them feel at ease, we had muffins and fruit and classical music during the testing.  It mostly worked, though Mushroom had a very rough morning on one of the days and had to take a long break from the math test in order to calm himself down.

I don’t know that I learned much about them.  They both did extremely well on the reading section, respectably on the math section, and poorly (though in totally different ways) on the language section.  The language section of the practice test we used wanted them to be able to find a lot of errors and spell words with a lot of difficult spelling rules.  I’m sure most third graders have memorized them instead of learning the spelling rules and that they have a lot more of these sort of “find the error” lessons, which we’ve done a few of, but not that many.  It also asked them to alphabetize things, a skill we haven’t ever practiced and they didn’t quite get since they use electronic dictionaries more than the old-fashioned one.  Most amusingly, it asked where you would find the phone number of a restaurant.  The right answer, said Mushroom, should have been, “the restaurant dot com.”  The test mistakenly thought it was “a telephone directory.”  Silly test makers.

Next year, maybe we’ll give a “real” test and see how they stack up against other kids instead of just how they did on their scores overall.

Self-Assessment

I wrote this post ages ago and then didn’t get around to posting it…  or anything else.  So add blogging to my shortfalls lately.  I have just been overwhelmed with work!  Life is full but maybe too full.  Perhaps I’ll hash it all out for myself in a post on finding balance.  In the meantime though…

We got slightly behind on our portfolios, but as it was overdue, I thought I’d do something different and give myself an assessment as well.  For the kids’ portfolios, I fill out a quick sheet that has three categories:

Things to be proud of
Things to work on
Other things to say

If you’re curious, I have a detailed post about how we do portfolios here. Here for you is my own assessment of how I’m doing as a homeschooler, using the same format, though I’ve been a bit more wordy with myself than I am with the kids.

Things to be proud of
I got things off to a good start for third grade.  The organization system I put in with the new white boards has been working pretty well, especially after a minor update of the topics.  We’ve been consistently working, using our mornings and usually getting a lot done.  I have been especially good about making sure we do our Monday copywork or dictations and have been picking and discussing passages I feel pretty good about from the books we’re reading.  I have been doing a good job teaching math and have done some really good projects for math.  We’ve also had very good read alouds across the board for every subject.  I’ve done a number of fun, creative things for logic and thinking skills, such as the One Hour Mysteries and the Bananagrams puzzles.

I’ve done a good job helping BalletBoy during our one on one school time and that has been very productive.  When I realized that Mushroom’s spelling simply wasn’t improving, we talked about it and I changed course to do something outside my comfort zone by getting him All About Spelling. Overall, we’re plugging away at the year and doing well.

Things to work on
While I’ve kept up our monthly required reading books, I haven’t been as great about our other two monthly requirements: the writing project and the art project.  We have done some fun art, including a day outside doing great nature sketching, but we haven’t been as consistent as I wanted.  I need to make this a bigger priority and include it more often as something to break up more serious lessons.  I know the kids would appreciate that.  Writing projects are harder to work in, but I need to plan them ahead of time instead of waiting for inspiration to make them grow out of what we’re doing.  Sometimes that works, but it’s easier to have a plan and change gears than to suddenly find myself at the end of the month without having initiated a writing project.

In general, I’ve lost a bit of my creative juices for history.  We’ve been progressing, but too slowly and part of that is that I’m not doing as many fun projects for us.  We did do some fun art for our Australia unit, but in general, I need to be on top of history a little more because otherwise we won’t get up to World War I by the summer, which has been my goal.

While I’ve found really good quality one on one time with BalletBoy, the one on one time with Mushroom has been much more lacking.  Part of this isn’t my fault as the timing is weird, but I need to make more of an effort.  I also need to make more of an effort to keep him reading consistently.

Other things to say
Drama and acting has been handed off to others this term and I’ve really appreciated that.  Music has finally started and I am glad that the kids don’t mind practicing piano.  Science has just returned to us after being mostly handled by friends and the Botanic Gardens class.  We have been overcommitted this fall and I am glad to be dialing back a little bit.  It was a beautiful fall and we were outside a lot, which was positive.  Co-op is going extremely well and I am very happy with our group this year.

What You “Should” Know

I’ve clearly read too many homeschool newbie threads lately because this has been bugging me a lot.

What you should know and what skills a child should have at any given time is extremely subjective.

I know that when people are starting out, they worry about this.  Some people, I suppose, never stop worrying about it.  And there are legitimate reasons to check in about where a child is.  If a child is really struggling, there may be a question of learning disabilities.

However, I have so much trouble relating to the desire to follow state standards, which apparently some homeschoolers do, even the standards of states they think are “better” somehow than their own.  These are politically motivated standards decided in large part by politicians, not by people who really know anything about kids, much less your kids.  I also don’t get the mania for the E.D. Hirsch books.  He advocated that children need to know about dead white guys (and not much else) then made books of random, unconnected bits of information for kids by grade level.  I’m less than impressed.  Following a certain curriculum at least makes sense to me as that way you’ve got a scope and sequence, but it’s not an exact guideline.  If a child finishes the 2nd grade math of one curriculum two months into what is technically 3rd grade, is that really going to destroy his whole future?  Different curricula have completely legitimate but completely different scopes and sequences.

This is why, when we assess (and I take the idea of assessment very seriously) we don’t assess against a rubric of skills or against some idea of the average child of their age.  We assess progress and effort, we assess meeting personal goals and moving forward.

For me, what it boils down to is the difference between product oriented education and process oriented education.  I don’t buy into product oriented education.  My child achieving a list of preset skills isn’t what I’m interested in.  I’m interested in helping my children grow, learn and find their path.  There’s information I want them to learn, but I’m guiding them, not pouring it in.  They have to take the steps themselves.  I can’t do it for them.  And in the end, I assume that the learning isn’t what you come out with at the finish of a preset school year, but the journey you took to get there.  You can measure the finish with a checklist of skills and a multiple choice test, and sometimes that’s a fine thing to do, but the more important piece, the journey, is harder to measure, yet more important.

How to identify a fossil shark’s tooth, a piece of coal, basalt, sandstone and a vein of quartz probably weren’t on any list of second grade skills.

 

The Joy of Assessment

That’s right.  I think it’s a joy.  I’m here to proclaim my love for it.  Assessment in schools is usually a dreary affair of grades and standardized tests, with lots of pressure thrown in.  Our assessment isn’t like that.

We are lucky enough to live somewhere with what I consider to be pretty minimal homeschool regulation.  On the one hand, it’s overly vague.  On the other hand, they reputedly don’t have any staff to enforce the vagueness anyway, so it’s hard to get too fussed about it.  Of course, the fact that I have a master’s degree in education and therefore can speak at least a little of their language probably makes me overly cocky.

The primary requirement we have is simply to do something for every subject (exactly what is the vague part) and to keep records (exactly how is similarly vague).  We would do this anyway.  I can’t imagine not doing this in some form.  Beyond disorganization (which I totally understand and suffer from as well), I don’t really understand why any homeschooler wouldn’t want to keep track of what their kids are doing.

I’ve tried to make a steady routine for us, which we’ve used for more than two years now.  The writing elements for me are usually pretty quick.  I try not to spend more than an hour on them total.  Every two months, we update portfolios.  Here’s what what we do:

  • I make a list of every class, performance, and field trip we’ve taken, as well as all the read aloud books we’ve finished
  • I write a 1-3 sentence summary of what we’re doing in each subject.  For some subjects, this doesn’t change from time to time or only changes in small ways, such as that we’re studying Rome instead of Greece.
  • I write a quick assessment of each kid where I answer two questions with a few sentences: What’s something to be proud of?  What’s something to work on?
  • I give the kids all the “work” we’ve saved up over the last two months.  This is mostly drawings and a few worksheets or evidence of projects.  I tell them to pick three or four pieces that are special and worth saving.
  • Next, I pick three or four pieces that I think are worth saving.
  • The kids and I sit down and make between 2-4 goals that I type up for the next two months.  This is totally their call.  Often, the goals surprise me.  They can be very silly or very ambitious and academic.
  • I compile all the parts into a binder.  We sit down and read through all of it together and we each sign the front sheet.  We also look at whether they met their goals from the last go around and occasionally look at the older work in the rest of the binder.
  • Very last, I throw away all the drawings, worksheets, pamphlets and junk that has accumulated over the previous two months.
BalletBoy's Portfolio. It has one of the signs from his lemonade stand.

After we’re finished, I always feel amazing about what we did.  I’m usually amazed to realize that the kids saw multiple plays and concerts or that we finished as many books at bedtime as we did.  When I type up things I think the kids should be proud of, I feel prouder for them than I would otherwise.  When I think about what we need to work on, it prioritizes it for me and when I read it to them, they take it seriously.

Mushroom's Portfolio from earlier in the year. Notice the super-awesome Dalek he colored! The other page is from a class about fingerprints we did with our mystery themed co-op.

That’s the joy.  Our lives are full.  They’re full of activities, social commitments, books, projects and errands.  Assessments make us stop and appreciate all that we do and, by talking about goals and things to work on, they let us look at the road ahead.