Excerpted from Unschooling To University, by Judy Arnall
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15 problems with testing unschoolers and homeschoolers
Testing is the most common form of assessment in schools. Yet it is problematic in un- schooling and homeschooling because of the unique content and delivery method of education in the home and not a classroom.
1. Unschooling learning is neither compartmentalized nor linear— the very forms in which tests are designed to measure; exams test the wrong outcomes
The Concordia University (Chang, 2011) study measured not what the 12 unschooled children learned, rather what they didn’t learn that the government thought they should be learning. We could say the test was measuring different objectives.
Unschoolers don’t follow subjects or a school year. There are too many areas in science and social studies, history, geography, languages, and art to test children. Unschoolers who choose an area to learn about don’t go looking for a test in that area to measure their learning achievement. There is no point. As well, it would be unfair to subject unschoolers to grade-level exams as they may not have chosen to learn about any of the topics tested on the exam. Learning is constant, across all disciplines. Only school chops learning into subject areas, periods, and school years.
Mothers worry if their children are taking enough vitamins for health; governments are concerned about whether the children are learning. Mothers don’t measure the vitamin A in their child’s body every week to see whether it has been absorbed, nor should teachers have to give tests every month to test learning. Parents know that over the period of a month, their child will eat a variety of good foods that with give him the nutrients his body needs. Similarly, parents know their child learns. The trajectory of educational progress is often more like that of a butterfly, rather than that of a bullet. It is neither straight nor linear. It has plateaus and hills and valleys that depend on the child’s development, age, interests, and personality.
Many times, learning is invisible. Learning takes place even when there is no output or measurable proof; when children do not write exams, make a product, or write an essay, there is no output to prove the learning. But it does not mean learning has not taken place. That is why recorded parental observation should be considered a valid, and valuable, assessment tool, as it is often the only one parents have outside of the learner’s self-assessment.
2. Assessment changes the learning
When assessments enter the picture, the nature of play changes. As soon as outcomes are targeted, the play becomes directed and is no longer free or spontaneous. If children know they will be tested, they will focus on the material they will be tested on instead of enjoying the learning for its own sake. They learn to allocate their time and energy. They don’t “waste time” learning what will not be on the test. Nothing kills the enjoyment of reading a good novel faster than knowing you will have to write a book report on it!
Children cannot explore new subjects or delve deep into subjects because measurable outcomes must usually be met under significant time constraints. Marks do have their place, but should they determine curriculum, or should curriculum determine the marks? Many teachers complain that “teaching to the test” takes a lot of time and places unnecessary constraints on true learning, in that it curbs meandering and discourages natural curiosity. I agree.
Even option courses have grades. Why? The purpose of options is to stimulate a child’s interest in an area. It’s a low-stakes way to try out something new. If a child knew he wouldn’t be marked, he might take more risks in learning and strive to meet new chal- lenges.
Unschooling promotes true learning that is free of the bondage of marks.
3. Testing takes a lot of time and is stressful
Testing in schools is expensive and time-consuming. It takes time away from actual teaching, which is the main function of schools.
4. Testing becomes the content and may not be the best way to learn
How do teachers know that they’ve nailed it? They read children’s faces. When they don’t have that feedback, in online learning, for example, they give a lot of assignments to provide the necessary assessment component. My son took a Grade 10 Physical Education class online. It consisted of 50 hours of writing assignments and only 75 hours of recorded physical activity! Clearly, the school did not trust the children to do the physical activity and they needed a way of evaluating them, so they assigned them 10 quizzes, three essays, two projects, and mandatory marked written discussion. The writing component of the online class was far more difficult than it would have been in a physical class. This does not make sense. Teachers and parents know that kids are learning when they are engaged and enthusiastic.
5. Tests assess teaching ability at the learner’s expense
Teaching and learning is like throwing and catching a ball. Teachers know when a child catches it by the excitement on their faces. But it is hard for teachers when they throw a ball and a child does not even try to catch it. In school, the responsibility for learning must be on both: the teacher ball-thrower and the student ball-catcher.
In unschooling, it is only the learner’s responsibility.
6. Tests often don’t tell where areas of weakness are
A single number or letter mark does not tell a story when a teacher assesses a student; many biases can positively or negatively influence a test score, such as misunderstanding the meaning of a question.
Most institutions or programs will not allow a student to review their marked tests to see where they need to improve to move on to the next level of learning. This is wrong. All test-takers should be allowed to view their mistakes and at the very least, be shown the correct answers to show them where they went wrong. A grade of 80% is great—but it doesn’t tell them how to correct the 20 percent of the questions they got wrong.
There is great value, however, in using tests for self-assessment. If a child wants to start a math program and needs to determine his level, a test is a great tool. The resulting mark is insignificant; it’s importance is as an indicator of the optimal starting level for the student.
7. Tests are often geared to future students, not current ones
Standardized achievement tests allow schools to plan improved delivery and content for the next year’s crop of students, rather than current students. Consequently, the test results may not correctly evaluate learning.
8. Tests often measure the ability to take tests, instead of measuring the learning
When my children began taking tests at 12 years of age, they needed instruction on how to mark the bubbles and not get lost on the bubble sheet. They needed guidance on how to gauge and budget the time allotted for the test and how to reduce pre-test anxiety. Often, test questions are formulated so poorly that the learner cannot decipher what is being asked. The problem is the test, not the learner’s knowledge.
Unschooled children are not used to tests and may do poorly even when they know the content, simply because they are not schooled in the testing procedure. One of my sons had a bad experience that illustrates this. Going into an exam, he was not told to reset his calculator before the teacher cleared it, essentially sabotaging his configurations. His math test answers were incorrect because his graphing calculator was in radon mode instead of degree mode. Obviously, the test results did not accurately reflect his knowledge.
9. Testing must cover a beginning and an end
Learning doesn’t end or begin. It doesn’t start in September and end in June. It goes “off track” naturally. My children learned the most during the summer months, when they had access to a broader range of books and videos from the library. During the “school year” we were busy running to outside activities, groups, and play dates, and we often didn’t have much time to read a book in a hammock. So, if the kids had been tested in September, they would have shown a great increase in knowledge since June. By the same token, June testing would show less progress. As well, there are dry spells when kids don’t appear to learn much academically, and that is okay—after a dry spell comes a tsunami of provable academic learning! Testing cannot possibly capture the ebbs and flows of meandering learning.
As well, testing has time limits. Very few events in real life are timed. The stress of a timed event can impact the learner and prevent her from successfully outputting her knowledge, resulting in an artificially low mark.
10. Academic testing only measures the learning during a particular chunk of time immediately prior to testing
Testing does not measure knowledge retention a few years after testing—that is to say, it is not an indicator of true, intrinsic learning. If leaving-school achievement tests were given to adults two years out of school, they would almost certainly fail them, unless they were actively working in the field!
11. Tests teach values
Test questions are very school-biased and give a child the impression that school is “normal” and homeschooling is, therefore, “abnormal.” His learning experience and that of his homeschooled peers is not reflected in the questions. My daughter took a Grade 3 Math exam and figured out, at age eight, that over 70 percent of the questions featured “boy” scenarios. What does that tell her about math and girls? Because parents rarely see the test that are given to their children, these biased embedded values are rarely caught.
12. Testing measures subject matter content only
Testing does not measure the fundamental soft skills essential for success in life: initiative, honesty, creativity, problem-solving, or interpersonal communication skills. Children may be highly gifted in intelligence areas such as music, art, dance, drama, sports, movement, and other personal skills that cannot be measured by testing. Heavy emphasis on test results in core subjects tells children who excel in art, humanities, and sports that their intelligence is inferior.
13. High-stakes testing promotes cheating
When my kids went to university, their exams were weighted at anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the final course mark. When I asked why so high, the explanation was that cheating in course assignments was rampant, and that it in an exam environment, it was easier for administration to control cheating.
14. Grades can damage self-worth and self-confidence
Grading compares a child to others, rather than evaluating her own progress. Grades hurt self-esteem, especially in children with special needs and learning disabilities that have many alternative aptitudes, intelligences, and abilities. As Thomas Armstrong and Howard Gardner note, there are at least eight ways to be intelligent. School tests only measure two: linguistic (English) and logical (Math) abilities.
15. Learning can be assessed through many forms other than testing
Assessment of portfolios, projects, photographs, physical evidence, observations, and self-reflection are valid to prove learning. However, this form of evaluation can make it difficult to compare one student to another—a required element in our environment of mass delivery, standardized curriculum, and conveyor-belt education. Bias is embedded.
One teacher may reward an essay with an A—another might evaluate it quite differently. The best assessment, always, is the learner’s self-assessment.
Do we test for social, emotional and physical health?
There are four dimensions to a child’s development: social, emotional, physical, and cognitive. As a society, we do not regularly or mandatory test a child’s physical, emotional, or social health to ensure that taxpayers are getting a reasonable return on the funding of parenting programs, health care delivery, or even child benefit payments. We leave it up to the parents to monitor child’s health in those three dimensions and ensure satisfactory progress from six to 18 years of age. To demand that parents subject their children to a “well-child” check-up every year in exchange for continuing to receive their child tax benefit would be considered undue interference in the private realm of parenting. We have to trust that parents are not giving their children ACES. So why are we so concerned with testing a child’s cognitive health every year? Are they learning? Are they keeping up with their cohorts? And why is it important that they keep up with their cohorts in learning? What is wrong with personalized learning that allows comparison only in relation to a child’s own progress?
As in healthcare, government regulation and interference in unschooling should be non-existent.
In 99.9 percent of homeschooling families, parents have their children’s best interests at heart and their well-being firmly entrenched as their first priority. We have to trust that parents know their child best in all four areas of development and give them the ultimate say over their child’s education and cognitive development, in the same way we trust them with their child’s emotional, social, and physical development.
No marks until high school or beyond
Test-taking is a life skill and we all need to learn it. We take tests for driver’s licenses, yoga teaching qualifications, swimming and karate levels, and post-secondary admittance. But do we need to start when kids are six years old? No. At that age, they don’t need to endure the stress that testing causes; they will learn test-taking skills when they need to. The first tests some of my children wrote were the non-mandatory Grade 6 government achievement tests in Math and English. Some of them did not write a test until Grades 9, 10, or even 12, in some subjects. They caught on quickly when they needed to. High school is plenty of time to learn and polish their test-taking skills.
Grades were also unknown to our children until high school. Believing that self- evaluation was the best form of assessment, we asked our children from time to time, “What was interesting about that? What did you learn from…?” We did not record their responses. We asked questions to start them down another line of thought. Our record keeping consisted of keeping track of the resources we offered to the children,
not what they produced with them. Much of the time, they didn’t produce anything that looked “schooly.” How do you write, in educational jargon, that the kids put on a puppet play over their bunkbeds? When they produced something interesting, we took lots of photos and videos. Those are things I still treasure today, and always will.