Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What's Not on the Test

Will this be on the test? 
This week we are fulfilling one of our state's few homeschool requirements by administering a nationally normed standardized test of our choice.  We chose the Iowa Test of Basic Skills because it is diagnostic, meant to show areas where a student's skills might need additional attention in the coming year.  Last year, N.'s first time taking the test, we had no idea how he might do since he'd never taken a standardized test or filled in a bubble sheet.  And we aren't particularly familiar with what kids are "supposed" to be learning in second or third grades, so we wondered if the knowledge and skills we knew he had would register on the test.  For example, he spent a lot of time in second grade learning about early twentieth-century chemistry via the biography of Marie Curie and the autobiography of Oliver Sacks.  We figured it was pretty unlikely that that knowledge would be captured by the test. 

Standardized tests can only measure a very narrow kind of learning or skill and of course one of the major reasons we homeschool is to escape the dominant regime of testing and assessment in American education.  If N. had not scored high on the test last year, we would have been concerned, but also ultimately dismissive, reasoning that he knows all sorts of things and has all sorts of skills that are not measured by the test.  As it happened, however, he did exceptionally well, so we felt (somewhat hypocritically!) vindicated, even though his performance might simply be demonstrating yet again the common truism that standardized tests favor privileged upper-middle class males.

This year, we've been joking about all the things that N. studies that are not going to show up on the test, making long lists over breakfast: the history of trains in America, technical information about how trains work, technical information about mills and water wheels (thank you, David Macaulay!), Victorian and early 20-century architectural styles, other building-related facts, music theory, music composers, music history, Harry Potter, Tintin, Calvin & Hobbes, the history of our city, how to draw buildings, trains, and other vehicles, French vocabulary, ballet, detailed American history from the Revolution to the Civil War, how to make paper airplanes, sailing, art appreciation, old movies, the history of the piano.... etc., etc.  Any child could make a list of all the things they care about and are experts on that will never show up on the tests they take.

However useful standardized tests may or may not be, I am at least very pleased that we are able to give them in an utterly no-stakes environment.  No teacher will be fired as a consequence of N.'s test results!  No school funding is dependent on the test outcome!  Indeed, we are required to administer the test but not to submit the score to any state agency or body.  So we try to glean what information we can from the test about N.'s learning and his test-taking skills to guide us as we learn together in the coming year.  Happily, N. thinks the tests are really fun!  The other night he begged to do another section before bedtime and we wouldn't let him because we wanted to preserve some kind of uniformity of test-taking conditions.  "Please, please can I take another Iowa test???"       


Adrienne Pilon ("A") said...

Think if we did this with all kids: instead of doing test prep all the time, the test could actually be fun. A diversion from the usual activities. Of course, given the inequities in our educational system, it's a fantasy. I also just finished doing a fair bit of test prep for the AP exam--a good exam, mind you, and one that I think is "low stakes" since the outcomes don't affect my job, or student's grades or college entrances. But familiarity with test format is one predictor of success, so prep we did. You must be curious to see how N.'s test scores come out.

Anonymous said...

Love it!


Erica MomandKiddo said...

My 8 year old has yet to take a standardized test. I believe the first one is next year, but they don't "count" until 4th grade. I am dreading them but yesterday he chose a math test prep book for 3rd graders at the library! I asked him why and he said, "because it looks fun."