About Tests, part I

(an excerpt from my book, POOR CHEATED LITTLE JOHNNY, soon to be released.)

Tests are a form of evaluation.  I believe that the problem testing was trying to solve was to find some way to know how far the student had progressed.  It is absolutely the case that we will need some method to assess whether or not our children are actually learning something, and ideally the something specific that they are supposedly studying.  This is a problem built into the very nature of education.  I think tests were meant to answer the question “are we succeeding?”

That is more than a fair question.  It’s a critical question, one that impacts each and every decision we make as educators.  Is this curriculum involving and exciting my child?  If so, we’ll continue.  If not, back to the drawing board.  How do we know if the curriculum we are providing is working?  Currently, ostensibly, we know through testing.

Today, as testing is seen as the most important tool in the educator’s arsenal and is used for evaluation, bad test scores equal failure.  (Of course, educators almost always pin that failure on the child and not on their own efforts.)

How to fix testing?  (Rather than “how to fix a test”, which is another subject altogether…)

First, I propose to you that we currently use testing for entirely the wrong purpose.  We test in order to “evaluate progress”.  And we test so that we can issue a grade.

But progress comes in many shapes and sizes.  There are students who ace tests simply because they have a certain skill set.  They can cram and memorize what they need for short-term success in a test.  These students should be given an A+ for those particular skills.  Memorization – A+.  Cramming Ability – A+.  (I’m being facetious.)

Other students have poor skills in these areas, and so do not do as well in testing.  We should give them a lower grade for these skills.  memorization – C.  Cramming – C-.  (Kidding, just kidding.)

But then this kind of testing has nothing to do with a true and accurate evaluation of what the student has learned.  All we really should be interested in is: Did Little Johnny understand what he studied?  Can Little Johnny use what he learned in some way that makes his life, and/or the lives of those around Johnny better?  What did Johnny not understand?  What specific materials were not grasped or evaluated by Johnny?

Currently, of course, such discovery is not the purpose of testing.  I am suggesting that we reform this tool.  We will need to reshape it, and I believe in a specific manner.

What should a test be like to be a helpful educational tool?  Well, that depends on the subject and the importances contained in that subject.  It also depends on Little Johnny’s reasons for studying that subject.  Let’s get specific.

Say Little Johnny is studying the American Civil War.  Is it really important that he recall the dates?  The date that Gettysburg happened, say?  Do you recall that date?  How about the date that Lincoln was killed?  Let me ask three questions.  First – do you recall those dates?  (I know for 99.99% of you, you don’t, and don’t cram for the test, please, just answer the question!  That’s it, time’s up, you fail!)  Second – should you recall those dates?  Third – What should you recall about these events?

Now we’re into importances.  I know the answer to the first question – do you recall the dates?  You don’t.  Why not?  IT’S not important, not to you or anyone other than a historian or a student placing an event on the timeline of history, and that can be approximate rather than earth-shatteringly specific, in order to generate a sufficient understanding.

The dates do not generally have an impact on your life.  They do not change your life in any way.  But these events and their significance do have an impact on your life, particularly if you happen to be an American.  And what precisely is that impact?  (Here’s the important part.)

THE IMPORTANCE OF ANYTHING THAT ONE STUDIES CAN ONLY BE SUCCESSFULLY DETERMINED BY THE STUDENT.

Which also means that THE IMPACT THAT A STUDENT’S STUDIES WILL HAVE ON THE STUDENT’S LIFE CAN ONLY BE DEVELOPED AND DETERMINED BY THE STUDENT.

Only Little Johnny is living Little Johnny’s life.  I’m not living his life, and neither are you (unless you are Little Johnny, in which case I’d say: “Hi.  How’s it going?”  Only I’d be afraid to hear the real answer.)

Only Little Johnny can look at a piece of information being provided him as a part of his “education” and decide that it is or will be important to him.  What’s more, as Little Johnny is the “end user” of his education, only Little Johnny will decide if he wishes to use or recall that information at all.  It does not matter how urgently we demand that Little Johnny pay attention, that Little Johnny understand just how important this particular fact or lesson is.  He will decide what he wants to care about.

Little Johnny is the end user of his education.
_____

As you probably know, I am an advocate for homeschooling. It’s my belief that homeschooling potentially provides a student with a vastly superior education than schooling in any form. This is backed up by a lot of numbers and research. I’ve taught for public and private schools, at the University level, as a private instructor in thousands of workshops, and as a homeschool dad running a homeschool group. Homeschooling by far works best for most students- and most families.

But I understand that many parents do not believe they can effectively homeschool. They’ve been told that they “don’t have degrees,” and that they “aren’t qualified.” This is all nonsense, of course. You’re legally not required to have any kind of a degree to homeschool your kids anywhere in the U.S. A lot of people who have degrees and who call themselves “professional teachers” are simply awful, and even destructive at what they do. A lot of parents…hundreds that I know of…have homeschooled their kids right into universities and careers.

In a serious effort to make homeschooling easier to do, and more commonly successful in terms of education received, I’ve authored my own curriculum. It took some 15,000 hours to write, over more than a decade of work, and is intended to replace the need for schooling a student from age 5-Adult Continuing Education. The curriculum is called Steps (or “CTT”). It has been used by over 20,000 students worldwide over the past 10 years. Hundreds of “success stories” attest to how well CTT works.

CTT courses are written in a way that gradually allows the student to take over his own education. Each course itself largely does the teaching, relieving mom and dad of that duty unless they wish to use our daily lesson plans in various subjects as springboards for family discussion and discovery – as many families do, every day. The parent has the job of making certain the student is working and has what they need to study. (And you’ll need to find a good math program for homeschooling as we don’t provide one. There are many.)

Below are links to our site discussing each level of curriculum, and every subject at that level that we offer. (You can start any level at any time. We don’t have “semesters” that start at a certain time, and each course stands alone well.) You’ll find free videos describing how every subject and each level works. You’ll discover free samples of every course we offer. Our site offers many other services and surprises, including numerous free courses you can download and try out.

Starter is for ages 5-6, and for preliterate students of any age. It focuses on starting to develop literacy skills, while teaching about various subjects. Starter includes full two-year programs in Reading, History, Science, Creative Writing, and Living Your Life, courses that develop life and study skills for the youngest students. Every lesson plan at the Starter level works to develop literacy.

Elementary is for ages 7-8, and for students who are developing literacy. It includes two-year programs in Reading and Spelling, History, Science, Creative Writing (which also teaches the parts of language at this level), and Living Your Life courses which develop life and study skills in preparation for more advanced studies to come.

Lower School (ages 9-10) offers two-year programs in Study Essentials, Reading and Spelling, History, Science, Creative Writing, P.E. Electives, and in various arts such as Animation, Music Theory, and Acting. At this level, students must read fairly well, and studies are progressively turned over to the student.

Upper School (ages 11-High School, and Adult Continuing Education) provides programs in Study Essentials, Reading and Spelling, History, Science, Creative Writing, Current Events, Literature Guides, P.E. Electives, and in arts such as Animation, Acting, Music Theory, and Music History.

For parents who wish to teach at home, but are intimidated at the thought, and for parents who just wish to improve the homeschool experience, we offer a ten course homeschool program for homeschool teachers, as well as several books about education and homeschooling today.

We want you and your children to win with homeschooling!

13 comments for “About Tests, part I

  1. October 21, 2011 at 6:36 am

    Great article. I like your perspective. I have to say that creating a test is hard work. Assessing student work can be very difficult as well. However, I think that the issues of assessment come long before the instrument is created. In particular, I consider the issue one of input/output (please pardon the technology reference).

    Is our instruction well connected to the development of communication for what the student has learned? I am of the school of thought that says that verbally processing information, especially math which is my specialty, is important to ensuring that we integrate the topic at hand. By teaching, and yes forcing kids, to communicate beyond their comfort zone gets students to fully integrate knowledge. Hence, we have to remember that as we use assessment tools that we prepare our students to be able to communicate what they have learned in multiple ways.

  2. October 21, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Hi Barry,

    I appreciate the kind words. However, my point is that testing – ALL TESTING – should be kicked out of education. I don’t care about the technical approach to the testing – testing is destructive in almost any form. I only use it to spot what a student did not understand in his studies. In my curricula, Steps, we ask that a student not move on to the next part of a study until he has a very high percentage (100% ideally) understanding of the section just studied. In history and science (and not really any other subject we offer), we use tests to discover what the student may have missed so that we can send him back for re-study, and ONLY for that reason. We do not recommend grading, or treating a “test” as it is currently used in education (generally punitively and as a control mechanism over the student, the student’s family as homework and home assistance is often mandated to poorly “scoring” students, and even control over teachers). I gave up creating even these sorts of tests in recent years, as I increasingly believe that the student’s daily work and discussions will reveal what he’s learning.

    I also do not believe in student evaluation, not at all, not of any kind.

    Yes, a student’s ability to develop communication skills is important, we’d agree there, generally. However, I would never connect such a skill to testing, or test it in any way. Life will do that. And a person’s communication skills will develop if he or she is truly engaged in the educational process. This will never happen if we continue to enforce subjects in education for which an individual student has no love or aptitude. Your subject, math, was always one I disliked in school. (Nothing personal, you weren’t my teacher. I’m better now to some extent.) I would NOT communicate in math class because I had been led to believe (through tests and grading, report cards and the other pernicious tools of education) that I was not good at it. That, being an award-winning writer and actor by age 15. I ENJOYED communicating, as I do now – just not about subjects I did not like or feel comfortable with. Why SHOULD a person communicate about things they dislike and do not understand? Who wants to appear “stupid?”

    And the responsibility for a student’s failure to comprehend is, I’m afraid, squarely on the shoulders of the school and teacher paid to teach that subject. WE could spare students and teachers alike if we’d stop trying to enforce unenforceable standards (national, state, school-wide, whatever), and simply allow each student to study subjects for which they have real interest and passion. THEN YOU WOULD SEE COMMUNICATION, CONSTANT AND AT A VERY HIGH LEVEL! And you’d see students truly each preparing to do what they want to in life, what they WILL do out of conviction and faith in their skills and knowledge.

    You mentioned that it’s hard work to create a test. Yes it is – mostly because it’s the wrong thing to do to the teacher and the student! And “forcing” children to communicate, as you put it (your word, not mine) is an absolutely horrible idea. We want children to take increasing responsibility for themselves and their own communications. Forcing anyone to do a thing does not ever increase their responsibility level, and given the resistance the teacher is likely to create in the student, will not improve the student’s skills or understandings. Instead, being forced to do things like communicate beyond the student’s means convinces the student that other people are in charge of his life, people like teachers. He has no power – he can’t win. Hence, the fantastically high drop-out rate we see in schools today, the miserable failure of school districts, the teacher scandals all over the country as teachers try to make it appear that they are succeeding with their students – by altering test scores covertly! The whole system is a bust, Sir.

    Sorry, but we’re going to have to disagree entirely on this one. I would not “force” a student to do one thing. Thanks for writing, though!

  3. October 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    WOW! I am not in favor of grading and also dislike ranking students. However, as you said, as educators we need to benchmark what our students know and constantly judge their progress in order to assist each student uniquely. Also, testing does have some value; if it is done properly it becomes an instrument of education.

    We may agree on more than you think, but I can tell you that as a parent or the adult in the room there are things that we do know better and we do have the right to use our abilities to get kids out of their shells and push their limits. I concede that the use of the word “force” is not what I do and sounds more harsh than my intent. However, as a teacher I know that communicating and integrating knowledge is a very top priority.

    Thanks for the reply.

    Barry

  4. October 22, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Hi Barry,

    You’re a brave man, I’ll give you that! I appreciate your willingness to sustain a dialogue. I’ll be direct with you, then. You “dislike” ranking students. I think ranking students is a crime against them and a sin. It is a control mechanism used to degrade the student and force his parents to accept homework – a method of controlling them, as well. After all, if “Little Johnny” is “failing tests”, if he’s “remedial” – he’ll need to get a lot of help at home, and do lots of catch up work. Great way to kill a student’s life, not to mention his family.

    Educators very often know NOTHING of the subjects they’re assigned to teach. I saw it often when working for the Los Angeles Unified School District – teachers assigned English or math or science classes to teach, who knew next to nothing about those subjects and read a chapter ahead of the students in the textbook throughout the year.

    And who granted you as a teacher the right to insist on ANYTHING from a student? Who gave you the “right” to push a student? Lead by example, sometimes, yes. I “push” their limits by communicating with the student and letting them inform me what they’re ready for next. I also know that if a student is not interested, no amount of “prodding” will suffice to change his mind.

    Yes, we agree – testing could be a tool – if never done as it is today in schools. If no grades were issued, no report cards. No student evaluations offered or made. If tests were used ONLY to pinpoint those aspects of the study materials the student did not understand so that he could be sent back to that exact area for restudy – as interest allowed – great. If you work in a school, I’m sorry, but I know you do not work in that way.

    We agree again, communication is important. If teachers would listen more determinedly to students, they’d be far more able to serve the student’s needs. But most teachers are caught up in communicating AT – they do not have the time, or the interest to be communicated TO. Communication by definition requires two parties exchanging and receiving ideas – a skill most teachers fail at with deadly consistency.

    Yes, we agree again – integrating knowledge is important. But that’s the student’s job, and happens as he lives his life. Curricula and teachers should work tirelessly to find ways to make study materials and subjects germane to the students life and interests, and in that way invite the student to be interested and to integrate the information into the daily chores and flows of life. You as a teacher cannot MAKE the student – any student – integrate anything. Integration of information is an intimate, interior process. It will happen when the student is good and ready for it to happen and not one second earlier.

    You’re welcome for the reply and the discussion is welcome! I see you applying your training and intelligence to the discussion. I would ask you to consider these ideas, which are unquestionably outside the “main stream” of educational methodology – a methodology that has so spectacularly failed our children, families and nation. Thanks again!

  5. Chandra
    December 4, 2011 at 2:32 am

    I am a home school mom, as well as a small business owner and full time student. I understand what it is you are trying to do, but testing is a tool we all need to implement and lets face it, determine if what was taught was actually received by the student. Grading systems allow us to know exactly what category the student fall into so that we (or rather I) can adjust and teach according to that individual students needs. Yes this does not happen in the public school systems we know today, but that was the way it was originally intended to be used. If there were no tests, then I would feel very sorry for society. Our entire methodology on how we do things run on tests. Drivers license, health care, job placement. If you kick out the tests in elementary & secondary schools, how would the student learn to perform on tests as an adult? Everything taught to a child is to benefit them when they become grown. If you teach the child to be defiant then defiant he shall be. And yes as educators the parents give them the right to “push” the child to his/her limits. I have two unique children, one gifted and one with special needs. I push them both to the max on a daily basis, and they are all the better for it. While in public school they said the child couldn’t do because the child was special needs, this child will never be able to ….. testing determines this, but once I pull them out and taught them myself they flourished, the tests were later repeated and they excelled. So you see testing can help you prove that your child, any child is capable, even against all odds. Testing is not the enemy, perhaps it is the creator and administrator of the test that is.

    • December 4, 2011 at 8:46 am

      Hi Chandra,

      I’m going to respectfully but thoroughly disagree with you. Placing students in “categories” as you put it is another form of labeling students. This is an incredibly destructive practice that severely limits each student labeled. Once labeled, the student is no longer a person, complex and with unique strengths and needs, instead he is his label and is “categorized” to be “like” other students given the same label and treated accordingly. This practice has ruined more lives than you could count, and I feel sorry for the society that allows it to continue. You’re a teacher defending current practices because to admit that you peo9ple have done as much harm as you have would place you under moral and legal duress. Our “entire methodology” as you put it is only about 100 years old and did not exist before that time. It was inculcated as a control mechanism by educators and government. It is the very thing THAT NEEDS TO GO, to resurrect any hope we have and a better world. Testing AND the people who authorize and support it are most certainly the enemy!

      • Chandra
        December 4, 2011 at 11:24 am

        I guess you did not read my entire post. I am a HOME SCHOOL MOM, not a professional teacher, and the fact that you think once a child is tested he/she suddenly disappears as a person is ludicrous. However, such is life, we all have our opinions and well no matter how wrong/right they maybe, it is our own. To that end I must say I am very disappointed.

        • December 4, 2011 at 11:49 am

          I read your entire post, Chandra. I know you’re a homeschooler – one using all the same methods and tools as schools use, so of what value is that? You apparently did not read the article, or saw it only through your fixed idea of the world. I am far more than disappointed in you, I’m appalled at your responses. It is sheer laziness to let a “test” do the educating or determine the “level” of a child. It is also labeling to do so. You did not read the response, either, or you did not understand it. We do all have “opinions”, as you said in an effort to degrade mine. Yours are lazy nonsense and a waste of the reader’s time. That’s my “opinion”. Don’t write back, your posts won’t be accepted.

  6. Austin
    January 6, 2012 at 6:41 am

    I agree completely with you Steven. Now I’m only a sophomore in high school so yes, some may think I’m just saying this because I’m a kid. But yes, that is the reason. I am a kid. I am the one in school. So yes. Every day I go through the motions of starting/finishing school, then projects and homework, then going to bed, but on nights before a test I stay up till 12-2 in the morning just trying to memorize the chapter or more that will be tested upon. The test comes, I finish it and now all I think (and others my age as well) is ok now I got to just forget that so I can “learn” these next chapters that will be tested on. Let’s face it, tests are stressful especially when (my Spanish class) gives vocab words(not unusual), then the very next day they test to see if you know it as easy as those tests are they barely teach me. Its just an easy grade that should have been taught especially being a different language. We need to not memorize and forget and hope something stuck in. My future just like every other person my age has not been written yet and that being said we need to learn some of us know what we want to do later in life others (like myself) have no clue we are just searching and trying learn what we can so we can write our future. I love your posts thank you for all of this(:

  7. January 6, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Yay! So great to have a student write in! What you describe is, I think, entirely common and terribly destructive, just as you describe it. I believe your reaction to tests and the study materials they represent is one of the real curses of how education is done today, and I truly feel for you! You would be a great candidate for homeschooling 🙂 Hang in there! Don’t worry about their tests – those will not define your life. What YOU do and think and believe and create will.

  8. Austin
    January 6, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Ohh I’m sorry I forgot to say but I actually am a homeschooler I forgot to post that. Yes I try not to allow tests to worry me but they do only because of my future will need an education just as most if not all do so I do all I can in school to succeed and I again thank you for all your input it is very helpful and useful information(:

  9. March 24, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    I think what I’m hearing is a call for real-world evaluations. I have been thinking a lot lately that one of the greatest skills we need to teach our kids in this information reformation is the ability to filter info successfully to meet their needs. How to teach and evaluate that?

  10. March 25, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Hi, Bill. Yes, that’s a part of what you’re hearing, but there’s more to it, I’m afraid. Schools use testing to enforce control over children. We both know that memorization hasn’t much to do with learning, but the way tests are done, children are forced to “study” (read “memorize”) enforced materials for hours, and then regurgitate the “info” on a “test”. In this way, a school can control a great deal of a student’s time and attention beyond school hours. They can also control parents who are forced to assist their children with this nonsense. Thanks for thinking about this, and writing!

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