September 16, 2010

Standardized Testing: The Week

"Assessment should be focused on students' learning over time by the person in the best position to judge the quality of that learning. There's an inherent problem with any one-shot test that's designed and then scored by somebody far away.
-Alfie Kohn 

We spent this week taking the California Achievement Test.  While Robotson took the test, I blogged about it.  Here's how it went day-by-day.


Robotson is finishing up section one right now.  He's pretty excited about taking his first test, which is a complete change from just a year ago.

When we began homeschooling, I had some very particular ideas about how things would go.  I didn't bother with curriculum because I knew that my kids loved learning so much - they would beg me to show them the way.  Hah!  My main concern was teaching Robotson how to read.  Nevermind that we'd never done much reading together.  I was under the impression that since he couldn't sit still and listen quietly, that he wasn't ready.  And somehow this was going to magically change when we sent in our first declaration of intent to homeschool.  Sounds so completely ridiculous, doesn't it?  I pushed reading, he dug in his heels.  He only really became interested this past year.  I feel a lot of responsibility for my part in not understanding how to foster a reader, but in the end - he's right where he needs to be.  He has a love of learning, and a love of reading that I have had the privilege to watch bloom.

Back when I was pushing it, I brought up the ominous *gasp* test at the end of the third grade.  He would need to know how to read.  I obsessed about it.  He obsessed about it.  It handicapped both of us.  My friends told me not to worry about it, and eventually I chilled out.  Robotson began to read, and we both got calmer.  Then it was time to think about ordering the test.  I very nearly decided to just skip the whole darn thing.  See, it's required by law, but they also can't ask you to show them the results.  What exactly was the point?  But then Robotson brought it up.  I figured what the heck, might as well.

The test itself is not what I was expecting.  I realize that it should be easy for an adult, but I didn't expect Robotson to feel so confident about it.  Just a few questions in, and he's already telling me how easy it is.  He finished up day one in about an hour.  No big deal.


Today is reading comprehension and spelling.  He's a little nervous about the spelling, and irritated that the reading comprehension section is 9 pages, 36 questions!!  "But it is easy."  He's so darn cute over there taking it.  It's quiet right now.  Yesterday, the girls were constantly interrupting us out of curiosity.  So today, they are watching the Astro Boy movie.  This is better.

I can't help looking over at him and feeling so proud.  When he finished the first part of section three, I had to read the next set of instructions to him.  There were only four more questions, so I sat with him while he answered them.  I guess because I was sitting there, he decided to read them aloud.  It was interesting to note that while he did not always pronounce - nor even seemingly understand - all of the question being asked, he was able to choose the correct answers.  I've known for a while that his comprehension is very good.  He picks up on situations in stories, and how they relate to the world, all the time.  That's always impressed me because I know some adults that still can't do this.  I was so intrigued by this part of the test, I looked up reading comprehension in Wikipedia. (Emphasis mine.)

Proficient reading depends on the ability to recognize words quickly and effortlessly.[1][2] If word recognition is difficult, students use too much of their processing capacity to read individual words, which interferes with their ability to comprehend what is read.
Many educators in the USA believe that children need to learn to analyze text (comprehend it) even before they can read it on their own, and comprehension instruction generally begins in pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten.[citation needed] But other US educators consider this reading approach to be completely backward for very young children, arguing that the children must learn how to decode the words in a story through phonics before they can analyze the story itself.[citation needed]

Interesting!  We don't work on phonics at all.  My kids are learning to read by being read to, and talking about what we've read.  Which also explains his answers in the next section - spelling.  I noticed that the less intuitive the spelling, the more likely he got the correct answer, but overall his nervousness about spelling is well-founded.  He definitely needs to work in it.  It's impressive (to me) that he recognizes this for himself though.  Seems like a good reason to encourage his blogging!

Today's testing took about an hour as well.


Today started with language mechanics.  He felt this section was easy, but I know he did not do very well.  At one point, he forgot what the directions instructed him to do, and began filling out the wrong answers.  It was hard not to say anything, but part of taking a test is being able to remember what you should be doing.

We haven't spent any time specifically talking about grammar.  What he does know, he's picked up from reading and writing independently.  Since these two things are relatively recent for him, I would expect this section to reflect that.  Again, a good reason to allow him more opportunities to blog.

Language expression was next.  He breezed through it.  Although, he did ask me at one point if he could choose the answers that Tarzan was most likely to give (as opposed to proper english.)  Umm, no.

I'm glad the test is halfway over.  He was back to agonizing over the number of questions in each section.  Though his complaints were mostly in jest.  Though the first two days took him about an hour, today it's already been 90 minutes.  He just keeps singing and talking instead of working.


Shenanigans this morning.  Robotson wanted to listen to his iPod while taking the test.  No.  He wanted his stuffed cat next to him.  No.  Why?  Well because we hadn't done that the other days and I was feeling irritable.  I don't have a better reason.  Forty-five minutes later he was finally ready to sit down.  It's math.  Actually he's very intuitive with numbers.  He can often come up with answers to math problems with little thought, but seeing the numbers lined up as problems seems to bog his mind down.

After an hour of grumbling and blowing off the test, I had a talk with him.  It's not whether he gets the answers correct, it's if he's putting his best effort into it.  Did he feel he was really trying to do these math problems?  No, he did not.  I showed him how to use scratch paper (a totally new concept for him.)  He enthusiastically went through the addition, but whined through subtraction.  "This feels like real school to me." he complained.  We ended up missing the book club meeting.  It took two hours to get halfway through the first section.  We took a break for lunch before tackling multiplication and division. We've done very little multiplication, most of what he knows he learned through Timez Attack.  Division is something we only talked about once.  But he got through both of these sections easily (and I peeked - correctly.)  Go figure.

Since it had taken him so long to complete this math section, I decided to skip the next one and let him work on science; his favorite subject.  Aside from each question inspiring him to come up with 15 more of his own; he completed this section quickly.  Finally!  It took four hours today.  It will be nice when we are done tomorrow.


Mathematics concepts and applications is where we started today.  So far, no whining and he's working quietly.  At one point he said to me, "I'm doing all the math in my head today.  I don't need this scratch paper."  Aww... what a change from yesterday.  I figured this math section would be easier since he's more familiar with word-type math problems.  We read a lot of math books, but spend almost no time working out series of problems.  Moving on.

Social studies was his last section.  He finished up in about an hour and ten minutes today.  It only took that long because he had to take dance breaks with his stuffed cat.

Final Thoughts

This week has changed some of my views regarding standardized tests.  When I was in school, tests were all about passing or failing.  Every test was viewed that way.  Did I learn from the study unit on grammar?  Did I learn anything during that semester?  Would I get to pass into the next grade?  Would I get to leave high school?  Could I get into college?  But the testing booklet that we are using clearly states that this is a tool to measure where your child is right now.  Do they know what most kids their age know?  Granted, that's based on someone else's ideas of knowledge for a third grader, but still.  What areas do they need more attention, and what can you feel confident that they understand?  This isn't about getting to be a fourth grader.  It's a tool for me.  This is something I didn't even understand when I ordered the test; maybe not even on the first couple of days he was taking it.  Was the original purpose of standardized testing just supposed to be a tool for parents and educators to know where each child was excelling/struggling?  Then somehow it got warped and morphed into these horrible measurements of whether teachers got to keep their jobs and how each state was failing it's children.  What a shift in mindset it would be if we stepped back and used these test results as a guide for each student.  Look, we unschool.  I'm not naive enough to assume that in our daily lives we've come across everything found on this test.  I know there are going to be gaps.  There are also things that Robotson is really knowledgable about that won't show up on any test.  I'm interested in finding out what our gaps are, and finding ways to work them in.  I'm not going to pretend that I have this unschooling thing down pat.  I'm also hoping that the testing process makes him take life in general a little more seriously.  We've discussed the need for a good education many times.  Now he can see there is some accountability every few years.  It's not just "Mom and Dad" telling him it's important.

I'm sure I'll update when we get the results back.  I have no shame.  I take full responsibility for his education, and so will acknowledge where we are lacking.  But I'm not worried.  He still loves learning, and as long as it doesn't "feel like school" he's always interested in what's going on around him.


  1. Great post! We have started the practice tests in our home, and already Nicholas was stressed out. He clearly remembers tests, and more importantly, grades from pubic school. He was very upset when he missed 1 question out of 7 - my fault for doing the percentage calculations as he asked and he realized it was a B. We had a good conversation following, and I emphasized the same points that you had (thank you!) about how the test was just a tool to help me teach him. I hope he stays calm when the real test gets here! I'm glad you and Nick made it through the week, and happily at that!

  2. I am a Canadian teacher and parent of two. I stumbled upon your blog by accident and really enjoy your posts. This entry is especially interesting. I am fascinated by the idea of unschooling, and how your education choices fit in with the "norm". Standardized tests are a highly debated topic where I live and in fact are often deemed useless. Compared to what you are describing our tests seem like a cake walk! I'm wondering about your children's future education. Will you unschool through their teenage years or do you anticipate them entering high school? If they were to enter high school what steps do you see as being necessary to prepare them for traditional methods of assessment? Again, great blog and very thought provoking!

  3. Thanks Christin! I can't wait to hear all about Nic's testing adventures. Maybe he can talk Robotson about it to help him too. Oh and Brother Bear.

    Sadie- Thank you for commenting! I'm really glad you are enjoying my blog :)

    Standardized tests are a big debate here too, especially recently in Georgia (where we are.) Fortunately, we aren't really part of that debate since ours are not regulated.

    I'm not sure what the future will hold actually. Right now, Robotson has no interest in the school system at all. He may change his mind of course, and then we'll talk about it, but the decision will be his to make. The two girls are really too young to even understand what they are missing. Mostly they just want to ride a school bus. But it will be their choice when the time comes.

    As for unschooling itself, I just try to follow their lead. If they want more lesson-like plans, then I'll find them. I doubt my son will ever be that sort of learner, but I think my girls might prefer it.

    One of the things we would need to discuss before putting them back into the school system is where they may be behind. If they are serious about attending public school then they will need to either get up to speed or be prepared for the possibility of being labeled. It should be easy enough to find out where they might be lacking though, because the state has detailed grade by grade information.

    I don't really worry about it. If they aren't taking it seriously or don't like it - we can just pull them back out. I've thought sometimes about what happens if they have to go to school because of something out of my control. I can only hope that doesn't happen or that I have prepared them enough.

  4. I don't know how you feel about blog awards so don't feel like you have to respond, but I nominated you for one since I enjoy reading you so much. Here's a link: Thanks for being an amazing writer!

  5. Thank you Queen Bee! I really appreciate it. I'm sorry it took me so long to say thank you.