Homeschooling the Standardized Test: A Passionate Defense

Homeschooling the Standardized Test: A Passionate Defense

Confessions of a Sheeple

What I am about to tell you would get me run out of Homeschool Town on a rail, but I feel it's important to be open and honest.

  1. I don't hate standardized tests.
  2. I am bored by the predominant homeschool narrative that standardized tests "turn our children into soulless factory drones" - mostly because I don't know a single "soulless factory drone" who aced his SAT's and I also don't know a single "creative engineer" who did not. 
  3. My ability to take standardized tests well single-handedly saved me from the F's I rightfully earned by ditching whole semesters of school - instead, my report card boasted a glorious roster of C's. Scantrons saved me from serious groundings, year after year. And I want to pass that skill on to my kids.

"Oh no! Look at all the sheeple who don't agree with me!"

"Oh no! Look at all the sheeple who don't agree with me!"

Using the Word "Sheeple" Doesn't Make You Smart

The overwhelming narrative in the homeschooling community is that standardized tests crush a child's individuality and turn them into spirit-crushed discipline robots.

The word "sheeple" is ubiquitous, and mostly used by adults against kids who take tests well.

"Well, I guess they're okay with raising their kids to be sheeple..."

"I guess they don't know the school system was designed to turn out factory drones..."

"Timmy looks good on paper, but you know, kind of a sheeple..." 

I don't get it - if filling in a Scantron bubble crushes a child's spirit, then maybe there should be more focus on building up the spirit and less focus on hating the inanimate bubble.

When standardized tests were developed in 200 BC in China it was a huge leap forward. They were created specifically to protect the country from corruption and establish a meritocracy. It has never been a perfect tool, but it was effective in to making sure that the dissolute king's syphilitic nephew wasn't going to be in charge of your village's crop production.   

Today the very taking of tests has become highly politicized and fraught with sensitive side-issues. Personally, I'm not interested in the politics and I can't speak to how tests are used in traditional school (all of my teacher friends hate them) - but I would like to explain why I teach them in homeschool.

First, standardized tests measure more than how much you rote-memorized. Just taking the test shows how well you can understand questions, how well you can focus under pressure, and how much you can apply the facts you should know to answer new problems.  

No matter what career field you enter - from engineering to jewelry production - these are useful skills. Think syllogisms are difficult? The English language is difficult. Syllogisms teach you to see relationships between our highly-nuanced words. Tests are high-pressure? Life is high-pressure, and it's especially in high-pressure situations that you must think the most clearly. And yes, some of that rote memorization is imperative. Try coding a program without memorizing functions.

Does it accurately reflect how smart I think my kids are? Sometimes?

Is it a measure of their worth? To colleges, maybe? 

It actually doesn't matter how I answer those questions - because I do know that if you don't do well on tests, you're at a disadvantage in life, and my kids are at enough of a disadvantage just by having me as their mom.

So every day, in between "Film as Literature" and "Any Boy Scout Badge You Want," it's Test Prep time. And between "Piano" and "Write a Research Paper on Anything," it's PSAT time. 

Taking the time to study the different kinds of tests they will be faced with (Test Prep) as well as the specific test that will determine their college (PSAT) is especially crucial for us because as homeschoolers they are so unfamiliar with the tests their peers take - on our first practice test, my kids didn't even know how to fill in the bubbles correctly (which, following the narrative, is proof of their unbreakable individuality and true intellectual superiority).

My other goal is to teach the children how to break down questions. Simply analyzing a questions leads into upper-order questions of logic and forensics, connotation and denotation, rhetoric, the difference between quantitative and qualitative evidence, direct sources and inference, fact and opinion, and determining tone and writing motivations.  

These are all the skills that I expect my children to develop for their eventual roles as adults in a free society, and skills that seem to be so missing from our cultural dialogue. Does the ability to analyze a question make children drones? I think it makes them citizens.

The insightful notations "ignorant" and "skeptical" were joined by a doodle of "Future Car" at the bottom.

The insightful notations "ignorant" and "skeptical" were joined by a doodle of "Future Car" at the bottom.

According to the Princeton Review Workout for the PSAT, the reading section should take a maximum of 12 minutes per passage - it takes us 45 minutes. The boys trade off reading paragraphs while the other maps margin notations and underlines their evidence. This is the Kaplan method - right now, most of their notations still aren't very good, but eventually they will be.

Then, we read each question out loud and discuss the nature of the question as well as the nature of each suggested answer, which is why it takes so long to go through. I try to express that there are usually no perfect answers - there's usually one garbage answer, one “probably true but not relevant” answer and two which could reasonably go either way - I call them the 0%, 50%, 94% and 95% answers. 

The Spectrum Test Prep focuses on every kind of possible question - literary, poetic, scientific, nonfiction, you name it. I like that the book gives the kids an introduction to the specific language that is used in subject-specific tests. For example, the scientific literature section emphasizes the importance of citing sources and providing evidence for inferences while the poetry sections focus on meter, structure, and figurative language. 

Spectrum is far, far more hands-off and self-explanatory, and each 2-page test takes around 15-30 minutes depending on how much the boys spend bothering the dogs when I walk away or staring out the window thinking about Minecraft.

Do they like it? No. Are they better than average? Not really. Are they smarter than average? No idea. 

But are they spirit-crushed discipline robots? O! How I wish!

Tara Kirk Sell: An Olympian Talks Baking Greatness

Tara Kirk Sell: An Olympian Talks Baking Greatness

Soundtrack to a California Summer: Naive Thieves "Santa Ana"

Soundtrack to a California Summer: Naive Thieves "Santa Ana"