Thoughts on Testing and Grading

Thoughts on Testing and Grading


This began as a Facebook discussion about what purpose grades and testing might serve in the homeschool environment. I thought I’d throw it up here to see what other people think.

There are several reasons why teachers give grades and test students.

1. One is to find out what the students know, to evaluate how well they are learning the material, skills, etc. To judge their progress. To determine what might need to be retaught or reinforced. Perhaps to determine which teaching strategies are successful and which need tweaking.

2. Another is to communicate that evaluation of the student’s progress to parents and other concerned parties.

3. Another is that grades can provide a carrot to encourage students to work harder, to strive for better grades, or to provide a stick to prod students forward who are lazy or not working to their full potential.

4. Another is that the act of taking an exam or writing a paper can help a student to synthesize what she knows, that it is in itself a kind of educational tool. In writing the essay, the student actually creates new insights, brings together elements that she had not previously considered together, and thus learns something new.

In a homeschool environment, and especially in the early elementary years, reason #1 seems not very compelling. With only a handful of students, the teacher doesn’t really need tests or grades to evaluate the student’s progress. She is pretty sure to have a good idea of what the student knows and doesn’t know. I do think that as a student grows up and is doing more independent work, a parent might seek to have more concrete methods of assessment; but I’d think asking a student to do a lot of writing about what they are learning can accomplish that without either testing or grades.

Reason #2 also seems pretty irrelevant in the homeschool, but it might not be irrelevant if, as in the case of my Facebook friend, there are relatives who are concerned about homeshooling. Perhaps the root of this concern is that the relatives who aren’t with the kids on a daily basis or just aren’t in the school environment, don’t have a good sense of how the kids are progressing, of what they are learning. Most of us have always associated grades with evaluation and even homeschooling moms can be feel that we can’t tell how they are progressing and learning unless we can look at their grades. In which case a possible solution might be finding a way to communicate their progress to concerned family members. I have to write end of year progress report anyway. And if someone expressed this kind of concern to me, I could share that with them along with my less formal evaluations of progress. Those kinds of evaluation might still feel less “real” but perhaps it’s a starting point.

Reason #3 I think is one of the great benefits of homeschooling. I think students should ideally work for the sake of knowledge and not for grades. This was the single thing that drove me most crazy teaching college. I hated grading, it always felt so artificial and fairly ineffectual in that the student who is only working for the grade often does not retain the knowledge once the grade has been achieved. To the objection that they won’t try hard enough if they aren’t being graded, or that they won’t take school seriously enough, I reply that the proof is in looking at students who excel without grades.

Reason #4 is actually pretty compelling to me. I do think students need opportunities to synthesize what they know. I had many final exams at UD that served this function. I still remember vividly a certain final exam where I pulled together all sorts of ideas from Beowulf and Dante and Virgil and some more recent novel and the excitement of putting all these ideas together in a new way. Father Maguire used to say that when he graded student essays he was looking for that “aha moment” when the light bulb goes off and the student has an insight or makes a connection with the material. I do think that as students become more proficient at writing, perhaps in middle school, they should be posed these kinds of questions which require them to synthesize what they have learned. This might well be something like a formal exam day or a regular term paper. I know one mom who writes exams for her kids and I really admire the effort she makes and they value to the students. I don’t think they have to be graded necessarily, but they can be very valuable teaching tools. Mind you, though, that multiple choice tests and short answer and fill in the blanks have very little to recommend them in this regard. And that oral exams can be quite effective, though I think I’d favor a mixture of oral and written work.

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  • My children are in a public Montessori school. There are no grades. We get updates on what the kids know via their homework, their class newsletters, and parent teacher conferences. There is a report card, but kids don’t know the whole A-F grading system at all. The focus is on the children learning for the sake of learning. There is no competition. However, a number of us have noticed as the children have gotten older that the students get competitive and try to find out where they stand in the group. I think that is just part of human nature. My children don’t like losing or making mistakes, and they are also not competitive at all but I can’t say that is the case with their friends or their friends’ parents. I think a number of the boys are looking forward to middle school precisely so they can get grades.

    I think it depends on the styles and needs of the teacher and the students. I think reason number one is relevant. I have two children with special needs. It has been a real struggle to teach them for different reasons. For my younger more delayed child many of us just assumed that he was struggling to keep to grade level. His homework and this struggles with writing have indicated it. Or so we thought. He recently took a district reading comprehension assessment and he scored in the 6th grade level and he is currently a 3rd grader. This also corresponds with a neuropsych we had done not that long ago that indicated that he is actually academically (in ELA and math) on grade level or above. But these are special, very targeted tests. For the neuropsych either the district or health insurance has to pay for it, but it is invaluable. The reading assessment was heartening because it has given us a more accurate picture of his potential… and this was a test that all the 3rd graders were given.

    So I believe that certain children need to be tested, but obviously the ones that I speak to are confidential and are therefore not competitive. I think you have to distinguish why you test and how you share (or not share) the results of the testing.

  • In the early elementary years, I don’t see much point in tests per se. Even in middle school, I don’t see much point in grades. The goal of synthesizing information is one you express well. However, as time goes on, there is a need to prepare students for the future, including future academic settings, whether for high school or college. And, in high school, even in a homeschool environment, there is a need for grades – colleges insist on them for admissions purposes.

    This is not to say that students must complete identical assessments in all subjects. I started using math tests fairly early on, as a method of getting my kids used to tests. At first, and through middle school, they have liked test days better than “regular” days – fewer problems (tests are shorter!) and no lesson. To some extent, I’m conditioning them away from test anxiety. I started using history tests in middle school (ID, short answer, long answer) as a way of making sure they pay attention to detail and also as a way to synthesize what they’re learning. And, again, as preparation for future academic situations.

    Come to think of it, other than math, all the test and test-like situations I inflict on my children begin in middle school. They remain largely ungraded until high school. Their purpose is both to help students focus on important information, synthesize and analyze what they’ve learned, and prepare for future academic settings. I don’t do tests, for example, in English/literature – I do writing assignments, which gradually grow into essay-writing.

    But also, as students enter middle and high school, they tend to more and more independent work, and “tests” become an important way to maintain contact with the quality of their understanding. It’s hard to imagine when you’re in the throes of kids learning to read, learning basic math, etc., but times do change. Last year, other than written work turned in, I had almost no academic contact with my eleventh grader. When he asked to graduate early, it was already pretty clear that he was ready for an independent learning environment. He had little or no anxiety about standardized testing, because he had been well prepared by test-taking and evaluation through high school. This year, with only one child at home, I spend almost no time one-on-one discussing schoolwork with him. He’s not interested in history (sigh), he has a class for literature, he talks science with his dad-the-scientist, and nobody in our house talks about math now that our math-lover has moved on.

    • I do know that. But I think you’d want to know early on which schools you were interested in. That you were limiting your choices to those schools and were ok with that. I think I changed enough in the four years of high school that a decision which sounded fine going in might look like a bad choice when it came time to apply to schools. So if you choose not to do grades or keep transcripts, you might have to create them in retrospect. Then again, I have more respect for schools that don’t require a transcript from homeschoolers. Because that seems like it has the potential to be quite a farce.

      • I only had a moment the other day, and not much more at the moment …. Quickly then …. For me, as a homeschooling mother, i don’t test or grade my kids. However — and this is an important caveat — we do not live in a state which requires homeschoolers to be tested or their parents to submit reports or lesson outlines for approval. If i did live in such a state i would most likely use some sort of grading and or transcrpit system because i would have to …. So on the one hand, it’s philosophy. On the other hand, it isn’t required so i don’t do it …. That said, i am a copious note taker and journaler (and blogger). I keep gracious plenty records of what my kids study, the progress they make, and so on. If one day one of my kids needs a transcipt when they apply for a given college, we’ll write one up. With my eldest, it wasn’t necessary.

        The short answer is that i guess i don,t really worry about it. It just isn’t something i think about, even. There will be plenty of time to deal with it, when and if we have to.

  • Re: #2
    Generally, the number one disadvantage to homeschooling/unschooling a child at home is other people’s perceptions. Most people who are “concerned” about a child’s progress are really just concerned about the fact that a child is home educated – because it goes against the “norm”.

    When my son was five, a neighbor came to our door with a color blocked sweater. She literally just said “I just want to see something”, and proceeded to “test’ my son on his colors. Thank goodness he “passed”. That was in the year 2001.

    The climate is beginning to change for homeschoolers. It’s much better now than it was even years ago. The more research that comes out, the more “well known” it becomes – the better for everyone.

  • With regard to college, it would be nice if schools would take whatever you want to send them. However, they don’t – or, at least, not all of them do. Even the Common App wants you to submit something that looks like their idea of a “normal” transcript.

    Maybe we’re limited in our academic vision in a different way. So far, our kids have applied to very competitive and moderately competitive schools. Academic scholarships matter to us because we (parents) have substantial academic debt that the financial aid machine disregards. Between those two factors, a transcript with grades, at least in major academic subjects, has been important.

    For our next college applicant, the “reach” school is Very Prestigious Tech School. No grades, no VPTS. It’s that simple.

    None of the transcript/grade issues or non-issues negate the desire to help my kids get used to the idea of testing, which they do face in college. It’s all very well and good to say that they can take on tests when they need to – but not everyone responds well to new situations when under a certain degree of pressure. My children certainly don’t. I would have done them a disservice, given their academic bent(s), had I not helped them prepare for that experience while at home.

  • I do give tests in math and spelling, starting in about 2nd grade. My kids also like tests because they’re shorter than lessons. My 5th grader is working through a grammar book independently, so I give him the workbook tests occasionally to make sure he’s getting it. I’ve done the same with history in busy years, using Story of the World’s multiple choice test book.

    That said, I don’t keep track of grades. If they don’t ace the test, we’re staying on that topic until they do.