Good Test, Bad Test

I like tests. I really do. I enjoyed them as a child in the Waldorf school I attended, I enjoyed giving them to my homeschooled sons and I enjoy giving them to my students. I enjoy creating tests and I enjoy going over them with students and helping them figure out what when wrong and why.
But I am appalled when I read about testing in public schools and the silly test that many homeschooled children have to be subjected to in order for their families to stay on the good side of homeschooling laws. Testing, which can be a useful tool, has developed a life of its own it seems, subjecting the purposes of education to its limited scope.
I don’t want to go into a whole analysis of the ludicrous thinking behind No Child Left Behind. And I don’t want to go into a blow by blow description of the horrors of tesintg little children.
Instead, I want to focus on a positive use of testing in Waldorf homeschooling.
From about 5th grade on, I recommend to parents that they figure out appropriate ways to use tests in homeschooling. I recommend that one teach ones children that tests are simply a means of measuring a certain way of knowing things and that it can be useful to use a test as a measurement for this kind of knowledge.
I see, at this age, there being two kinds of Good Tests – those which a child can use to measure his own knowledge of something like math facts or spelling, and those which help a child learn to use information well.
The first kind of tests can be quite informal – perhaps every Friday a  5th grader is given a test on 7 out of the 10 spelling words for the week or is tested on a handful of the problems worked on in math that week. Perhaps such tests are better called quizzes, as they are not as formal (as scary?!) as proper tests.
The second kind of test is the one which I find especially useful – a well designed test which helps a child think through what she has learned and what she knows – and hopefully helps her get clearer about what she doesn’t, and needs, to know. Test like this in 5th grade could be at the end of one’s Greek history block. Alongside straightforward questions like “Who was Archimedes?”, one could also have questions like “Describe the city states of Athens and Sparta. What was each like? Describe in detail.” Here a child can imaginatively enter in what she learned and  colorfully describe something of the character of these two places. As this is 5th grade, one wouldn’t be going into details of the government, say, of Sparta and Athens or the seeds of Western democracy. One might describe the position of slaves and of women in those societies – but one would leave the implications of such descriptions open, laying a foundation upon which to build in later years.
Another kind of test which is very useful in 5th and 6th grade is an open book test. Here one must take care not to ask questions which merely require the child to copy passages from a book (which is what most so-called reading comprehension tests in conventional education require). Rather, one is asking questions which require that the child knows how to get information – a rather necessary skill in our day and age! And because this is only 5th or 6th (or even 7th or 8th) grade we are talking about, we are not using the computer and internet. That comes later. For now, a child needs to know how to use books to get information – a skill which will prepare them very well for learning how to get information from the internet (or whatever comes in the future) when they are ready to use computers.
Here one would ask questions which could be based on maps, for instance. A 6th grader would have a map of the Roman Empire and be asked questions about its boundaries. One could have a subsequent map, say after the Fall of Rome, and ask questions comparing the two. In 7th grade, questions about the travels of various explorers – Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Cortez, Magellan etc – could be asked. Further questions could be asked based on those journeys, having to do with peoples they encountered, or the importance of their journeys for people in various parts of the world.
Other ways to use texts for information could be to ask 6th graders on up to find passages in a novel they have read to support certain claims. An 8th grader who has read a Sherlock Holmes story could be asked to find quotes which hint at (foreshadow) the development of the plot; a 7th grader who read The Hobbit could be asked to write about the various characters in the book and to find a really good quote
about each to show what kind of person (or elf or hobbit!) s/he is.
I am excited to teach a group of (mainly) high school seniors a class this fall and spring which will culminate in their taking the AP World History exam, which, if they do well, could help a number of them have freshman requirements waived at the colleges they attend. What makes me really excited about this class is not just that I actually think that this particular exam is well designed and really is a reasonable means of measuring someone’s knowledge of world history, but I will be working with with a group of students who I have been teaching since they were high school freshmen. And a large part of what I have been teaching them is to explore how to find out things, how to think about what they know and what sources tell them – and how to think in historical terms.  Now a main goal will be teaching them how to encapsulate what they know in ways that are required by the test – use of original documents, making historical connections and understanding the development of human culture over the millennia are major themes of the exam. I look forward  to helping them on this path. And I beleive that learning to be precise in encapsulating their knowledge, in learning how to hone in on what they know and to make use of that klnowledge has, in part, been assisted by the right use of tests in their education.

Posted on July 10, 2008 in General Homeschooling

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