Gearing Up for Assessments

“Be strong and of a good courage.” Joshua 1:9 

Is there a parent anywhere who approaches assessment time without the slightest trepidation? This is, after all, as much an evaluation of our teaching materials and methods as it is of our children’s learning ability!

To put it into perspective, however, think of annual assessments as a tool similar to the bathroom scale. Just as the bathroom scale doesn’t reflect the entire picture of our health, a standardized test or other evaluation does not offer a complete view of our home school. Like the scale, however, it can create discomfort if we focus on it to the exclusion of the big picture!

Knowledge is Power

In order to achieve good, accurate results from yearly assessments, it is best if both you and your child approach them knowledgeably. If you have chosen standardized testing as your assessment method, spend some time, perhaps the week before the test, going over test-preparation materials and practicing general test-taking techniques (see Sharpen Your Testing Skills). It helps to be aware of what is covered in a scope and sequence (such as the Typical Course of Study from World Book (see your local distributor for a copy) for your child’s grade, as tests are generally designed to cover what the “average” student in each grade will learn. If your curriculum does not use “standard” terminology (if, for example, you use the term “naming word” rather than “noun”), it may be helpful to begin introducing the terms most likely to be used in the test. However, be careful not to confuse young children with too much new information just before the test.

Where Should Testing Take Place?

Familiarity with the material being covered and the mechanics of the test can give children a sense of confidence and sharpen their competitive edge. For many children, this edge can be dramatically dulled if they are thrust suddenly into an unfamiliar atmosphere to be tested by a stranger. If you choose a test which must be administered by a qualified tester you may be able to arrange for the testing to take place in a familiar setting such as your home or church building. If not, arriving early on testing day may give the child a chance to meet the tester and look over the unfamiliar test site. Remember, everything you can do to relieve stress is likely to boost the child’s score and make testing a positive experience.

Attitude is An Important Ingredient

If you approach testing with a relaxed, positive attitude, it is likely that your student will feel upbeat about it also. Testing can be a useful tool for revealing gaps in knowledge, providing an objective look at how your student stacks up next to other children in his grade level, and yes, demonstrating how neatly he can fill in the little spaces on the test sheet.

Is testing the most important part of your school year? Absolutely not! Just like the numbers on your scale, test scores are only one part of the big picture. It’s your job to balance them with what you know about your childhis spiritual growth, his interests and hobbies, his special talents, the character traits that he has worked on during the past year, and his dreams for the future. All of these together reflect who your child is, and the person he will become. If you keep this perspective in view, testing can be a positive part of your school year.

Choosing the Best Assessment for Your Child

There are several things to consider when selecting the standardized test or other assessment method you will use.

1. Learning style and attention span

The child’s learning style and attention span are among the first factors to consider when choosing an assessment. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of learning styles, Cathy Duffy’s Christian Home Educators’ Curriculum Manual offers a concise explanation and a list of books related to the concept. (Available from HEAV.)

On a practical level, even parents who are unacquainted with learning styles can choose assessments based upon simple common sense. It is fairly obvious that a wiggly child who enjoys learning by touching and doing will probably not perform well on a lengthy, timed test such as the Iowa or Stanford Achievement Test. An organized student who prefers the structure of worksheets and enjoys working alone is likely to do well on any of the standardized tests, but be frustrated by open-ended assessment methods which do not provide concrete scores. The better you know your child, the better you will be able to work with him to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.


2. Curriculum

The curriculum you are using is another important factor in the assessment you choose. If you are involved in a unit study curriculum rich in projects, field trips, and other creative activity, a portfolio is probably the best way to demonstrate the scope of the student’s learning. If your student is doing well in a standard textbook curriculum, you may logically assume that he will also do well on the standardized test that most closely fits his learning style and attention span. If, however, you have a student who is working at several different grade levels using a mix-and-match curriculum, you may want to give more weight to the other considerations, such as learning style and previous assessment experience.


3. Previous assessment experience

If your student has been evaluated before, consider whether the experience was positive or negative. Were the results of the assessment close to what you expected? Did the student feel reasonably comfortable with the tester/evaluator, and the method of evaluation? If the experience was reasonably positive, it may be a good idea to continue using the same testing method. This makes it easy to compare scores or comments from year to year, providing a more complete picture of the student’s progress.


4. Convenience and compatibility

How easy is it to find an appropriate tester or evaluator to administer the assessment you choose? Can it be administered by any adult, an adult with a Bachelor’s degree, or by a qualified tester only? Will the person come to your home? Will the test or evaluation be done privately or in a group? Ask questions! Contact your local support group for recommendations and suggestions, and keep looking until you find the test and the evaluator that fits your needs.


5. Cost

The last factor to be considered is cost. Standardized test costs range from free, when administered and scored by the local school district, to $50 or more when administered privately in your home by a private tester. “Free” tests can come with hidden costs, however. They are usually administered in a public-school setting by a school official, and the scores are sent directly to the local superintendent’s office rather than to the parent. While many children still score relatively well, it is likely that for some children a less stressful test experience would result in better scores and more positive memories of the evaluation.

Many private evaluators and test administrators offer services that make their fees seem very reasonable. First, achievement test scores are sent directly to parents who can then choose to send them to the superintendent or, if the scores are lower than expected, have the child retested or privately evaluated. Second, the private evaluator should provide a detailed, typewritten evaluation in addition to any raw scores, indicating areas of strength or weakness, and provide suggestions for improvement. Third, some evaluators offer free phone consultations throughout the school year. This can be a tremendous help to a parent who is struggling with a difficult teaching situation. Therefore, compare costs and benefits of each type of assessment, and allow the first three factors to weigh most heavily in your decision.

After the Assessment

When you get your test results or portfolio evaluation back, use it! First, praise your student for the areas in which he did welland be realistic about “well.” A percentile ranking of 50% means that the student has scored better than 50% of all the students who took the test. It may not be the score you were hoping for, but it’s not bad. Praise is also in order for any rankings that are higher than the previous year.

After you send the obligatory copy of the results to the superintendent, study the percentile rankings or the evaluator’s comments. For each subject area, find out if your student did better or worse than the previous year. If there is a significant difference, you may want to try to find out why, especially if the score is unexpected.

  • Did you change curriculum?
  • Did you change assessment methods?
  • Was there a significant change in your student’s life that could have affected his score? For example, a move, a new sibling, or the onset of puberty are all stress-producing events that could alter a student’s concentration.

“Fear not, neither be discouraged” Deuteronomy 1:21

Many factors play a role in results that are unexpected, but if you regard negative changes as a challenge rather than a defeat, you have a better chance of improving scores the following year. If your testing or evaluation has been done by a private tester, he or she will usually provide suggestions for working on weak areas. If this help is not available, seek help and friendly support from experienced homeschoolers in your area. If you suspect that your child has special learning difficulties you might consider contacting a consultant or evaluator (see the Counseling, Testing, and Tutoring Resource page ). Above all, remain calm and loving. Remember, assessments are only one small part of the big picture!

Adapted from an article by Janice Campbell in the Virginia Homeschool Manual.