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Homeschooling: What About Tests and Grading?

If I tested you today on information you were presented with back in high school, how well do you think you’d do? Probably not so well, unless that subject happens to relate to how you make a living as an adult. But you memorized it back then, right? Why didn’t you retain it to this day? Why do we forget the majority of facts we learn from kindergarten through senior year? Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve explains how this happens, but we clearly aren’t meant to memorize and retain literally everything we learn, so why does the idea that testing is a necessary and useful tool persist?

When embarking on their journey, new homeschooling parents inevitably ask veterans how to test and grade their kids such that they “know where they are” academically. Considering that both the parents and their kids have likely always attended traditional schools, it’s no wonder the assumption is that testing and grading are the only way to track progress or “prove” that learning has taken place.

When I began homeschooling 14 years ago, I instinctively wanted to do something different from what schools did, but I didn’t know what that would look like, or how to accomplish it. My school centric mindset was so ingrained, I couldn’t imagine what our days could be like if it didn’t involve a desk, textbooks, a teacher, grades, and testing.

I mean, what else is there?

It took a long process of deschooling myself as well as learning from veteran homeschoolers and especially unschoolers who use real life learning to get me to the point where I felt confident in our alternative methods. But even then, I needed a reminder from time to time as the fear of missing out on something crucial to their development or education took hold. I often hear parents worry, “I want to provide a relaxed, out of the box and unique education, but also not limit their life choices.” Really, what they mean is, “My kid will still be able to go to college if I do this differently, right?" Spoiler: Yes!

By following our commitment to providing an engaging but low on pointless hoop jumping learning environment, I purposefully didn’t grade a thing. We also de-emphasized grade level. Our focus was firmly on learning and always moving upward and onward and not assigning a value judgment to what my kids did. When someone would kindly inquire what grade my children were in, my kids would hesitate, not sure of what to answer. I was finally forced to use grading to attain a good driver discount from our car insurance provider and later, I included grades on my son’s full high school transcript for college admission, but I’ve since seen plenty of homeschool transcripts that included units but no grades, using a pass/fail metric, so this is also possible. Some traditional schools and colleges have done away with grades, understanding their problematic nature and focusing on competency instead, although it’s not mainstream, much like there’s a lot of lip service paid to the benefits of later school start times and eliminating unhelpful homework/busywork that never sees the light of day.

From day one, my kids simply played, learned, experienced, and explored various subjects and interests. My kids continually improved their skills and I exposed them to myriad people and opportunities to stretch themselves. We opted for hands-on, engaging, and relevant learning wherever possible, and I never officially tested them. We simply participated in the activity, class, reading, or lesson, and then afterwards, had natural discussions about it, usually over a period of time, that never looked like testing or drilling to prove knowledge. It was always obvious they’d comprehended and understood, and had something intelligent to say about what we did. When we were involved in a subject they were really engaged with, these discussions could be quite involved, and other times they showed little interest, so we dropped it and moved on. When they took vendor-led in person or online classes that didn’t provide a grade, they participated fully and did all of the work competently, so, if we were grading, that’s an A, right?

The educational documentary “Race To Nowhere” reminds us that kids can study and cram, and ace the test, but when they take the same test again weeks later, they fail it. When this inevitably happens, is that indicative of an effective or ineffective education? If it’s to be expected, as the Forgetting Curve predicts, then what is the point of such an exercise? Well, they learned “something”, right? Big picture stuff most likely, but they obviously didn’t memorize any of the facts or details. Did “you” memorize and retain everything you learned in school every year? Of course not. It’s the life skills and soft skills like reading comprehension, critical thinking, expressing yourself, learning how to learn, how to find information, and teamwork, etc. that are developed over a long period of time as we mature and grow that are retained and ingrained and much harder to measure on a standardized test.

Measuring with tests and grading is something schools seemingly must do because a teacher can’t possibly know what each of 25 kids know, and there must be accountability to the administrator and parents to show the teacher is doing their job, right? But is it necessary or desirable, or a positive addition in a homeschool setting, where the parents have frequent one on one interactions and are oftentimes present during classes and learning?

In our homeschool and in our lives, I wanted my kids to truly crave knowledge as its own reward, and not be focused on a grading system that more often assesses how good one is at “doing school” vs measuring impactful learning. I wanted my kids to love learning for learning’s sake, rather than stress about having to cram knowledge for a test, only to squeeze it out like water from a sponge and forget all about it literally moments later.

But, you might argue, they’ll have to take a test sometime, in college or perhaps to gain a job, so they should learn how! Well, I agree with you, but does it have to be right now? Does it have to be all year, every year, and every subject, starting in first grade? My eldest son studied for his written driver’s test for three months prior to taking it, the very first time he’d had to do such a thing, and he passed with flying colors when was 16. He was older and showed maturity. He was ready for the stress of the process, understood how to succeed at test taking, and most importantly, it was something “he” wanted to achieve.

Now that he’s 19 and has almost completed his transferable units for admittance to a UC, he’s had to take more than a few tests in his community college courses and currently has a 4.0. Not taking hundreds of tests his entire life has not held him back in the least. I propose to you; if you had never learned test taking strategies in school (Yes, there are strategies that help you do better on the test. But isn’t it just about your knowledge? Nope!), you could probably pick up on how to succeed at them pretty quickly as a mature, wise adult, no? Of course you could, especially if you are motivated to do so. And that’s the crux of it. If you are ready and motivated to do so, you will succeed, prior lack of test practice notwithstanding.

When kids are engaged and interested, and the content, class, or book is relevant to them, they learn, and that learning and exposure to ideas and the development of skills takes place whether we test and grade them or not.

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