That one simple reason why she’d write a post about standardized tests in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. day….
Well, I’m being funny (I hope, ha ha ha) with my opening sentence, but I promise I really will tell you why standardized tests relate to MLK Day.
If you are homeschooling your child and you are required to have them take standardized tests, you may be wondering how to improve standardized test scores. I’ll give you some of my personal test-prep secrets and details about how I used my methods to do well on many standardized tests – including the dreaded bar exam!
The average homeschool student outperforms the average public school student on standardized tests. You probably don’t have anything to worry about. However, if you live in a state that requires homeschool students to take standardized tests, it’s in all of our best interests if you do what you can do make sure your children test as well as they can. Homeschoolers do a good job, but we made an unusual educational choice and we can use all the good press we can get about it. So, be mindful of the tests, but don’t stress. Trust our truly traditional educational methods because they’ve been shown to really work.
Don’t teach to the test. Don’t choose a curriculum primarily because it promises that it’s designed to align with test standards! (Don’t dismiss a curriculum that aligns with test standards, either, because most curricula will claim to be aligned with test standards. I’m very wary of a curriculum that was designed specifically to meet some standardized test). We’re looking at an era where more and more curriculum is designed to improve test scores…and our kids are taking more and more standardized tests…yet test scores are going down and we’re having situations where government clerks don’t know that New Mexico is part of the United States.
I’m not a fan of standardized tests in general. I think they stifle learning, stifle teaching, and they’ve taken over public schools. I refuse to teach my children to a standardized test because I think that the results, both academically and in life, are inferior to the education I’m providing my children. I’ll share my personal story of the last day my oldest child was in public school. That was the day the principal told me that children didn’t need to learn to spell because they could just use spellcheck, that spelling wasn’t important because it wasn’t even on our yearly state standardized test! This is just one example of how standardized tests ruin a real education.
What if your child does great on standardized tests? What does it mean? Well, it means that they do well on tests. If your child is doing ok on standardized tests at a young age, I’d take into consideration that homeschooled students usually do pretty well on these tests, and I wouldn’t worry overly about them when children are young. I wouldn’t stress my child out about them, either. I don’t like standardized tests, but I also understand that the US just loooooves standardized tests. Doing well on certain tests can open doors. I began gently teaching test-taking skills to my children at age 6, for their Chinese midterms and final exams (my kids love taking Chinese). If my children didn’t need to take Chinese tests, I wouldn’t do test prep in elementary school. I began teaching better test-taking skills in 6th grade, and before my oldest child takes the PSAT or SAT exam we will do intensive test-prep.
Here is the part where I get to how standardized tests relate to MLK, Jr. Day. Did you know that Martin Luther King, Jr. did not test always well?
Perhaps the most spectacular example of not testing well is that of Martin Luther King, Jr. An excellent student, King (who entered Morehouse College at the relatively young age of sixteen) performed miserably on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), scoring in the bottom decile on both the math and verbal sections. As we all know, however, he was “high verbal” by virtually any other measure: a gifted orator, author of seven books and a string of brilliant essays, including the impassioned and eloquent “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” To be sure, the GRE verbal is not intended as a measure of writing ability, but it is nevertheless astounding that a gifted writer and orator like King would do so poorly on this examination.
Just think about this shocking twist! A person who scored in the bottom decile on the verbal section of the GRE later used his verbal skills to change American society. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about yourself or your kid because of some stupid standardized test score!
How could a person so obviously gifted perform in the bottom decile of the GRE? It’s staggering to those who place so much confidence in standardized tests. The standardized test is a KING in American education. It’s THE measurement that counts for EVERYTHING. This is the era of “high-stakes accountability.”
But clearly, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s case, the standardized test was a very poor measure of this actual ability. Why?
I can’t say for sure why Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t do that well on his test. I just don’t know.
But, there are a few common reasons why a person might not do as well on a standardized test as he or she could: “(1) test anxiety, (2) lack of test sophistication (or test-wiseness), (3) lack of automaticity and (4) test bias.”
A certain amount of anxiety can, shall we say, light a fire under your seat and get you going mentally. For many people, a little bit of urgency gets the job done better. But you don’t want test anxiety to such a degree that you can’t think! When I taught public school it broke my heart to see elementary school children crying over a standardized test. I don’t think homeschooled students feel the same pressure, especially because homeschooled students take fewer standardized tests. If your child tends to be anxious about tests, there are multiple things you can do to help relieve the test anxiety. As the parent, your close relationship with your child puts you in a great position to talk about the tests with your child and help them feel less anxious.
First, teach your homeschooled children to finish a test on time. Many homeschooled students are used to being able to explore lessons and topics without feeling the need to finish before a bell rings. Homeschooled students might be used to focusing on enjoying learning, not on completing a compulsory task before an arbitrary time limit. I’ve heard anecdotal stories about homeschooled students starting public school and doing poorly on classroom tests because they were so interested in the test question possibilities that they didn’t finish the test. Second, go over practice test questions together with your child and see where their issues are. Does your child know how to eliminate obviously wrong answers and then make the best guess between what remains? Skills like that are taught.
Automaticity is an area where homeschool students should shine. In math, homeschool students should know all math facts by rote. MEMORIZE THOSE MATH FACTS. Preferably, by the end of third grade. This frees up the brain for higher math. You don’t want your high schooler reaching for the calculator to multiply 22 times 100 in the middle of a complex algebraic equation. Those simple math calculations need to be in the head for quick automaticity on tests. Good verbal automaticity results from reading a lot, and that’s something that I think most homeschool students do. Whatever homeschool curriculum you choose, don’t get so caught up in other stuff that you forget to have your kids read a lot of books.
Test bias is so complicated that I feel like it’s not that useful for homeschool parents. However, homeschool parents are in a unique position to be able to spend a little time going over standardized test questions together with their child and seeing where the issues are. Address testing issues one on one and one by one. I think we have to be pragmatic about it and ask ourselves, “What works with my child?” Then, do that. If you think test bias is affecting your child, do what you can to identify and address it. I think the best way to address this is by using the style of test prep that I did, which I will explain for you now.
When I left public school teaching in 2007, my students were taking 6 standardized tests per year, and in addition, they were spending weeks on “test prep” where they took practice test after practice test.
I’ve taught a lot of test prep.
I loathe test prep.
I certainly don’t want to do it in my homeschool any more than necessary. It’s soul killing. I can’t think of something that would educationally demotivate me more. However, I’m good at taking tests, and I’ve done plenty of test prep in my life. I’ll share a little story to tell you about what I think is the most effective way to test prep – and it’s not the way that most people do it.
Years ago I graduated from law school and had to take the bar exam so that I could become a practicing attorney. The dreaded bar exam! I paid thousands of dollars to take a special test prep course and get the practice materials that I needed. I think the course was 10 weeks long. 10 weeks of test prep! We spent about three or four hours in test prep class and studied on our own the rest of the day. That’s not unusual – most of my classmates took the class with me. My law school class was the most close-knit group of students I’d ever been in, and a lot of us studied together and shared what we were doing. There were two parts to the bar exam in Indiana, which were basically a writing portion and a multiple choice portion. I think we all wrote practice essays for the writing portion to memorize the large amount of material needed for that.
As I talked with other students I realized that I was studying the multiple choice questions in a very different way. Other students told me they were doing hundreds of practice multiple choice questions per day. They bought additional books full of practice test questions.
But I only did about 30-40 questions per day…
The other students focused on doing hundreds of questions.
I focused on thoroughly examining and reviewing the fewer number of questions that I answered. When you practice this way, after a while you start to notice patterns in the questions and answers. It gets easier and easier to know the answer. It’s much easier to memorize the patterns of test questions than it is to memorize all the possible test questions and their answers!
Other students told me they studied 10-12 hours per day. I studied about 6 hours per day. It made me a little nervous to know that I was studying for fewer hours than others, and I wondered if I was studying enough! But I knew that I had always tested well, and I felt like I was doing well on the practice exams. I knew I was memorizing the patterns and it just seemed so easy. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry. By the time I took the bar exam, I felt like the bar exam itself was easy.
Guess what method of test prep I saw in use in public schools? Do you think they did it the common way, or my way? Yep, you guessed it. We had to do it the common way. We had to cover lots of questions, and we had little to no meaningful discussion and review of the questions! To me, that’s inefficient, uninteresting, and ineffective compared to the method I used. Realistically, it’s a reflection of the limitation of insitutional school. A public school teacher doesn’t have time to sit individually with 30 students. There isn’t time to discuss in depth, especially not when what you have to cover are standards that are what we used to call “an inch deep and a mile wide.”
But homeschooled parents aren’t running an institution. We have only a few children compared to a public school (and even fewer who might need to be prepping that year for a high stakes test). You can have your child do fewer test questions per day, and spend more time with your child discussing why they missed a question, patterns in the test questions, etc. Focus on the large patterns in the test, along with simple skills like eliminating obviously wrong answers.
Just a few more simple test-taking tips for homeschooled students: