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.