Thursday, March 8, 2012

To Test or Not To Test...sometimes that is the question

Sigh...I remember school and the pressure of oral tests, quizes and exams. Sure, the Teachers needed to see if we had retained what they had taught. Sure they made us jam all those facts in our brains, if only to make a good grade on the test. But at what cost? I also remember stomach aches, anxiety, headaches, lack of sleep in elementary and high school...and for some I knew in college, popping "energy pills" so they wouldn't need to sleep and could cram some more, over consumption of caffeine, etc. I was one of the lucky ones in college. I remembered most of what the lectures contained and studied a bit to remember the rest. And without the personal relationship with teachers, since class sizes in college are huge, I didn't feel the pressure to please them which kept my anxiety levels low.  I made high grades without all the negatives that went along with testing for some.

But...that is part of why I homeschool. I want to give my children a fun wonderful learning experience without all the stress of tests and bullies, and who's friends with whom today, and whether a teacher likes them (because let's face it, some teachers just don't like some students and they don't all hide it well). I have one child who is a perfectionist and one child who frustrates quite easily. I remember when I was teaching Kindergarten, the first time I put a red X on a math problem done wrong, the tears, the "sorry"s, the trauma. At the time, I chalked it up to melodrama but quickly realized that for my daughter, those X's were actually wounds on her ego. I know that sounds silly to some and others will say, "Well, that's life, sometimes we get things wrong and have to deal with it" and from an adults stand point you are right. But I asked myself  Why it needed to be the way it was, why she needed to grow a thicker skin AT FIVE YEARS OLD, and why can't learning be done without the X's?

So we stopped marking things wrong. I started to just erase the answer and have her correct it, and give her a red star when the page was all done correctly. My perfectionist rose to the challenge! When I would erase things, there were no tears as she knew she got as many chances as were needed to master something and there would be no red mark to mar the work when it was done right. We didn't test her either. There was no need. When a worksheet got done correctly with no need to erase any problems, I knew she had mastered the concept and that was enough.

When my son came home to school with us in Kindergarten (I am a firm believer in Preschool for children, but bring my kids home for their formal education), I wondered what his reaction would be to making corrections and X's. When I first tried the erase and correct method, he would sigh and say "I have to do it AGAIN?"  and when I put the X's on, he didn't care that he had gotten something wrong, he was just relieved to not have to keep working. The more we erased and corrected, or if he got the correction wrong and was asked to do it over again, the more frustration he experienced and the less he tried and madder he became and more shutting down he did.

So I thought about it and came up with this method for him. I will erase and ask him to correct the first time, with a little help from me. If he really doesn't get the concept, or that particular problem, I put it on the board and we leave it there till tomorrow. Then we work it out on the board together and when he is given the workbook again, later in the morning, he remembers working on it and can do it himself. Then I make a mental note to revisit this subject matter again with him next week sometime in the form of a worksheet or even just an oral problem. This has helped instill confidence in him and helps keep his frustration levels down. And I also taught him that it was OK to ask for help BEFORE getting the problem wrong, that if he didn't get something, it was fine.  Part of his issue was also watching his sister. In his eyes everything came easy to her and hard to him. In our years of homeschooling, he realizes that is not true and in fact I find him helping her with her history and science and she helping him with his Language Arts.

Zoom ahead...they are now in 5th and 3rd grade. Both children are doing above grade level work and thriving. I am noticing however that my oldest in her perfectionism, gets stumped easily on work when she has, for example a list of definitions that she must match to the words they mean. I tried to show her how to skip the ones you don't know and when you have done all you know, it helps to narrow down your choices. She HATES skipping anything. I tried to get her to explain it to me, but all she will say is "No, I don't want to skip and come back, it's like twice the work! and that one I skipped is then blank. I don't like that at all!" Mostly this is not a problem. If she wants to spend 20 minutes staring at one problem until she wills herself to remember the answer or until she has mentally gone through them all, figured them all out and  then finally writes them in, in order, fine. We are in no hurry. But..this year I decided to have the kids do the state testing with our local public school. They would go into a 5th and 3rd grade class and take the test with all the other students and then come home. I called to arrange the tests and was told I would be contacted in the spring. In the meantime, I bought some Test Prep workbooks in their grade level so they could get used to what testing was like. They hated being timed and despised getting problems they didn't know and OH THE PAIN, when my oldest had to skip over something so that she wouldn't end up getting them all wrong because she spent too much time starring at one problem that she had no idea the answer.

Well, I got the call two days ago that testing is next week, Wed and Thurs and the following Tues and Wed. I checked the calendar and ...WAIT....we have rollerskating the first week, and bowling the next week. How can we go to testing? We've been waiting all month for skating and bowling? Laughing I took a deep breath and thought about what was more important, knowing where the children stood amongst their peers in academics, or going to have fun with friends. Well, we all know the answer to that don't we? Academics should always come first shouldn't they? So I called up the school, registered my kids and found out pleasantly that the testing is only done in the mornings so we would be free to have our fun too. I told my kids when the testing was and I thought my daughter would cry right then and there. She knew we were doing this, but when faced with the actual event, the stress kicked in. When I talked to her about it, she asked Why we needed to find out where they were? Did it really matter?And why did she have to go into a class where she wouldn't know anyone with a teacher that didn't know her?  And what if she didn't know some of the material? How could I expect her to do well, if  I didn't know what was on it? What if I hadn't taught all that was on it? And if it didn't matter whether she did well or not, what was the point of taking the test anyway? I assured her that she would do fine and let it go.

But her questions kept nagging at me. I was the parent, I knew what was best, but here was my child asking very wise questions. I then remembered someone asking me why it was so important for me to know where my children scored among their peers. This was a standardized test for a standardized education and my children we not getting a standardized eduction. A great education, a well rounded eduction, but not a standardized one. I thought about why it seemed so important to me that they go to this strange place, with strangers in charge and a room of children they didn't know, all to find out if I was teaching them enough. This wasn't about them and how smart they were, it was about me. Somehow, this would validate me that homeschooling was working and I was a good teacher. And if this was about me, then it was not worth the stress that I was putting my children through. And my oldest was right with each of her questions. We DON'T need to see where they stand, we know they are smart capable kids. I DON'T need to put her through the shame and worry if she came upon a problem or concept that we didn't cover, or have here wrack her brain for something that isn't in there as we have been learning other things and haven't hit on this concept yet. And if it didn't matter whether she did well or not, then what was the point of stressing her out just to validate my feelings. That's cruel, that is not the Mom or teacher I want to be. That is not the type of Mother and Teacher I AM!

So I called the school and told them I was sorry to have inconvenienced them (because they sure made it feel that way when I called to register the children) but that we were not coming for testing after all. I am sure they have my name on some list as a crazy homeschooling mom. This is the same school that my oldest begged to go to for first grade, but after three days there, came home and said "The teacher is nice, the kids are great, and the work is easy....but Mom...this school thing is not for me." and so I un-enrolled her, and welcomed her home. I have always lived my life as a Mom giving my children a voice in what they take part in, I am glad I listened to their voice in this matter.

And if down the road, I need to be validated in this method...I will buy the tests myself (which you can do) and administer them at home. But I don't think I will need that any time soon. To both my children's relief.

Now...on with preparing to Unschool. That starts next week...but that is a blog for another time.

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