My first experience with homeschooling was not at all what most people would expect. I was a classroom teacher in the local public schools and my friends had reached out for help. In the state of Florida, they were required to have an annual evaluation of their homeschool student done by a certified teacher. Although I knew very little about it and had absolutely ZERO intention of homeschooling my children, I was more than willing to help them.
Looking back, it’s fun to see how God used those early years, even before I became a parent, to mold my views of homeschooling.
As I browsed through the many homeschooling resources and talked with dozens of sweet children, the tiny seed of homeschooling was planted in my heart.
A few years later, I became pregnant with my own child and left the classroom to stay home with her… or so I thought. Barely a week after the baby was born my sister called me with the news my nephew was going to be retained again. Frustrated over a system that doesn’t take little boys’ needs into account and binds them with an arsenal of needless paperwork, I volunteered to homeschool my nephew. Immediately.
The rest is homeschool history.
It didn’t take long for me to grow to love the flexibility of homeschooling and the accuracy at which I was able to meet the needs of my nephew. I loved that he could be an 8-year-old boy, dancing or jumping while doing math if he needed to. I loved that we could move slowly with reading and still accomplish our goals without the constraints of the needs of 22 other students in the classroom.
It only took a few weeks before I saw the beauty of homeschooling and found myself making plans to give my own kids these same advantages. Homeschooling removed the many frustrations I had felt over little boys (and sometimes girls) not yet ready to sit still for 6 hours a day. It removed the need to retain a child in the early years simply because they weren’t keeping the same pace as the rest of the class.
However, after having evaluated all of my friends’ kids, I also saw one huge problem with homeschooling: assessment. Most parents didn’t even know where to begin with the process of assessing and documenting the progress of their children.
I have found three common responses to this dilemma. Some parents will give up on homeschooling out of fear they are failing their child. Some will simply test their child to death in a desperate attempt to prove they are somehow doing a good job. And finally, many who don’t fall into one of these extremes find themselves constantly doubting and worrying that they are messing up their child.
Can you relate? The purpose of this post is to help homeschool families feel comfortable documenting progress without the extremes and without feelings of failure.
The RIGHT Perspective on Homeschool Assessment and Documentation
The most important thing to grasp is the right perspective on assessment. The purpose of assessing your students is to SHOW GROWTH. It’s not to record an arbitrary score. Sometimes we miss this because of the traditional view of testing we all grew up being brainwashed with. We are looking for an “A.” But the truth is, the letter A is arbitrary. What we really need to know is…
—> Does our student understand the material?
—> Has our student learned something new?
—> Is our student progressing or just maintaining?
—> Is there a problem that needs to be addressed?
—> Is our student being adequately challenged?
—> Is our student applying the knowledge he/she has learned?
Can you see how the letter A fails to help us answer all of the important questions? If we focus on letter grades and test scores for our kids, what we are really saying is… I’d like for you to keep up with the other kids.
Instead we should be saying, I want you to GROW! I want you to be challenged where you are, apply what you know, and progress in the process. That’s what real education looks like.
Now don’t worry, I see the white elephant in the room and I know that colleges dictate certain things. But I have to tell you, letter grades and testing in kindergarten are not part of them. Colleges are looking for students who excel in high school. How you get them to that point isn’t their concern. This is good, because it gives us homeschoolers a HUGE advantage.
We have the privilege of assessing our kids and documenting their growth in meaningful ways that actually impact their academic excellence in a far more profound way than we typically see in the school system.
A Simple Plan for Homeschool Assessment
There’s good news. You DON’T have to sit your kindergartener down with a standardized test, believing it’s the only way to truly show her knowledge (even though deep down you know what she knows). In fact, it’s quite silly to do this.
Standardized tests show very little and are rather inaccurate. Now don’t get me wrong, they have their place. You just have to KEEP them in their place! My goal here is to help you see options for more appropriate assessment methods for each age level.
Preschool to 2nd Grade Assessment
- Anecdotal records
The biggest mistake people make at this age is rushing, expecting, and comparing. STOP that right now. These years show the biggest growth in your kiddos and it’s NOT the same with each child. I strongly recommend not starting formal school until at least 1st grade. Before that time, play a lot, read a lot, and talk about literally everything.
Manufactured worksheets can NEVER replace that kind of learning, which is why so many schools are calling to start kids earlier and earlier. Without parents investing time in talking to their kids and playing with them, kids cannot learn the basics as quickly.
During this time, be super patient. It’s great to note the progress of your child, but remember the foundation for academic learning is social, emotional, physical, and even spiritual. Look for ways your child is progressing in areas like fine motor skills (i.e. using scissors). Look for ways they are progressing in playtime interactions with others, negotiating, and a willingness to share. These are even more important than their knowledge of the alphabet.
I DO NOT recommend any kind of testing at this age. One way to document progress is to keep anecdotal records. That literally means you write notes telling about how your child is progressing in various areas.
While these can be very helpful, I prefer checklists as a primary measure of progress. We have one for life skills, literacy skills (reading), and math skills. In 1st and 2nd grade, we use running records to show progress in reading and comprehension. (That’s just a fancy term for tracking the accuracy of your child’s reading.)
You can find checklists all over the Internet, but I know how frustrating that process can be. To help, we’ve created a complete assessment pack for the early years covering life skills (physical, emotional, and spiritual), literacy skills, and math skills. Everything you need up through 2nd grade is included in one printable download.
3rd Grade to 6th Grade Assessment
- Open book unit tests
- Introduce the grading scale
The upper elementary years is the time to start introducing your child to traditional assessment methods. Just remember to do it lightheartedly. During these years, I begin assigning things like chapter or unit tests, but they are often done open book.
I also begin assigning some sort of “mark” to their work. In 3rd and 4th grade, I typically use the ESN scale. That is: Excellent, Satisfactory, or Needs Improvement. Then we move up to letter grades since that is a standard measurement.
Grades are important because we want to show our children that their work quality matters. I assign these grades based on accuracy and neatness. When I was a classroom teacher, I would always remind the kids, “If I can’t read it, I can’t mark it right!”
We also keep a portfolio during these grades. It’s important to keep work so you can show growth. This post will show you step-by-step how we set up our portfolios and what we keep in them. This post will help you keep up with the papers (because we all know that’s an issue!).
I created a printable set to help with this age level many years ago called the Student Record and Planner. My kiddos still use it every single year to help us track every aspect of our homeschool so we can see growth. Of course, it’s also great for accountability should anyone question our homeschool.
7th-8th Grade Assessment
- Unit/chapter tests
- Practice standardized testing
Most people see the middle school years as a practice ground. They’re right, but practice doesn’t mean nothing matters. In middle school, we are setting the stage for the high school experience, whether good or bad. If we create good habits and expectations, the yield is fruitful. But don’t be fooled, we can also create bad habits and expectations that end up hurting our kids in high school.
During these years, focus on helping your kids succeed with unit/chapter tests. Teach them to study for tests, including various methods for making study guides. It’s not nearly as important that they learn a particular subject as it is that they learn to STUDY that subject in a way that helps them retain and apply the knowledge!
Middle school is also a great time to use rubrics for projects and papers. Rubrics are simply a list of requirements with an assigned score for each item. This will help your student understand what is expected on assignments that don’t have multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank answers. My friend Marianne has an excellent post to help you develop a rubric. As a bonus, she has adaptations for kids with dyslexia!
You can also find writing rubrics on Teachers Pay Teachers. Just keep in mind these are written for the classroom and may need to be adapted.
Finally, we take a standardized test in these years as practice. Notice how many years it took to get here? And again, it’s only practice at this level. I don’t report this anywhere. I simply use it to help them get used to the environment they will be required to test in during high school. You can do this by purchasing the test yourself online (I buy the CAT-9 from Seaton Testing).
You can also call your local public or private school and ask if you can test with them. Our local college has a testing center that offers many tests to homeschool students, including middle school level standardized testing. (Call around your town because there is likely a facility near you.)
I also continue using the portfolio listed above, as well as recording “grades” on a bi-annual report card or progress report. The Student Record and Planner includes the forms we use for this.
9th-12th Grade Assessment
- PSAT, SAT, ACT
Once we reach high school, it’s time for the big dogs. Believe it or not, it’s an easy transition if you’ve kept the right perspective all along. Like middle school, I use progress reports and the portfolio to keep track of our homeschool. These are still the most valuable tools to me as they show far more than the number on the scantron.
But now it’s time to take those tests. First, you really begin to focus on taking “exams.” That’s just a collection of chapter or unit tests. If your student is college bound, teach them to study topics with an exam in mind. Then teach them how to study. You have the ability to make exams only a small part of their grade, as you are the teacher, but I would highly recommend starting the process of teaching them how to do this.
Don’t forget to use rubrics to assess projects and writing assignments. This is the perfect way to help the student who isn’t a good test taker show how knowledgable and talented they are. There are plenty of great paying careers that don’t involve Harvard, an engineering degree, or a 1600 on the SAT. (But that’s another post for another day.)
Next up are the big tests. We take a standardized test at a local testing center for 9th grade, usually the CAT-9 or IOWA. In 10th grade, your student should take the PSAT. P stands for practice. It’s a great way to feel out the formal environment and to gauge the areas that need work. You can take this test at a testing center or call the local public school and ask to be included. Legally, they are supposed to offer this test to homeschoolers for free.
Of course, during your junior and senior years, it’s time to take the SAT/ACT. I could fill 5 or 6 posts on that topic, but this is really supposed to be about the big picture, so I’ll save that for later. One thing to remember: Tests are just one piece of the puzzle. If your student is college bound, it’s important to take the time to do your best with this, but it’s not the whole picture. I’m encouraged to see colleges today acknowledging that test scores don’t seem to indicate college success. (Imagine that?)
This brings us to the most important part of high school: building your transcript. If colleges are finally admitting that students aren’t defined by test scores, this makes the transcript all the more important. Think through how you can truly reflect the many facets of your student’s success.
Remember that’s not just about science and math, but also about their interaction with other disciplines such as music, art, and even things like horsemanship! Capitalize on what your student loves and write a transcript that makes them shine for it!
Documenting Your Homeschool
If you’d like to dig into this topic deeper, you can listen to my full hour session from the 2018 Homeschool Conference Season. Click the image to grab your copy of the download.