Stress to the test


Written by Lora Lynn Fanning of Vitafamiliae

Before we left for this year’s homeschool convention, I thought it would be the “smart” thing to test my fourth-graders to make sure I wasn’t missing some major piece in their learning puzzle. If I was, I could research it at the convention.

I paid for an online test and followed all the rules. The results weren’t exactly surprising, but they weren’t encouraging, either. I had two fourth-graders who were burned out on math and we were struggling to motivate them to care about their work.

My husband and I arrived at convention with crazy eyes and worried brows.

My first stop was to find my favorite mentor mom and crawl into her pocket for an hour. I poured out my woes and she listened sympathetically.

She patted me on my head and reminded me that those tests were designed to compare public school kids to other public school kids. It wasn’t fair to compare my children to kids who were learning in a different environment under different curriculums.

Later, we attended a session about testing by Andrew Kern that rocked our world. We left with our notebooks full and our ears ringing with the truth of his statements:

Testing is not an end to itself.

Testing is merely a means to examine how much a student has learned. Learning and understanding are the ultimate goal.

Remove the sense of judgment from administering tests.

It often feels like a personal affront to our teaching skills when a child does poorly. And sometimes it is. But we need to remove the emotion from this and use assessment to be gentle with them.

If they knew everything perfectly, they wouldn’t need school, right? So we can gently correct and instruct without becoming impatient that they haven’t learned All The Things immediately.


Photo by timlewisnm

Different types of learning should be tested differently.

  1. General knowledge, of course, can easily be tested with true/false or through regurgitation. But it’s important to be certain that the retention is long-term. If they only learn it for a test, have they really learned it?
  2. Skills, like cooking or engine repair, are better tested by actual demonstration of mastery than any written test. It is useless to be able to pass a multiple choice test on the measuring cups if a child still can’t safely use the mixer.
  3. Truths or virtues — things that aren’t concrete — are more difficult to discern mastery of. For example, the commutative property in math (2 x 4 is the same as 4 x 2) or Newton’s law of gravity are truths. To “test” if you child truly knows these truths, ask them to explain it to you. Can they teach it back? If they can’t, they probably don’t truly understand it.

We took our newfound knowledge home and gave it a try with our twins.

My husband sat down with a list of “learned math concepts” and asked the boys to teach them to him. We were surprised to see that the child who tested better couldn’t really explain WHY the concepts worked.

The twin who struggled with tests readily explained each idea because he had worked much harder to understand what came instinctively, and less clearly, to his brother.

Which leads me to the final point …

Some kids really don’t take tests well.

That’s a skill to practice and improve, not a permanent lifelong condemnation. Knowing how your students respond to tests will help you better prepare them for the future.

So take a deep breath and let go of the Test Stress, parents! They’re a tool for you to use (or not use) rather than a judgment on your school at home.

Do you test your kids? Do you do standardized tests or just weekly tests based on your curriculum?

About Lora

Lora Lynn Fanning blogged for 11 years about her family life with seven kids at Vitafamiliae. These days, she homeschools her growing brood, teaches writing both in person for co-ops and online for Brave Writer, and writes at her new site,


  1. I usually only do spelling tests with my kids. The standardized tests are required by our state, so we do those too. My daughter got a really bad report on the spelling portion of her test. I had to remind myself that it is an area where she struggles. I also had to look at how she was tested on it. She probably would have done better if it was asked orally and she wrote the word down, but she had to choose between 4 words that were very similarly spelled and I think that made it difficult.

  2. My children are only 5 and 2 and I’ll admit to already feeling stressed about this. Not so much because I lack confidence in my kids’ ability to learn or my ability to teach; but I worry about the consequences of poor test scores. We live in a state where homeschoolers are not always treated fairly. We are expected to perform better than public school kids. I know I shouldn’t, but I worry about if my kids are poor testers. If we’re learning at home, I don’t need to test. I can tell when my kids know things. But if the state requires it and can use it as leverage to keep us from homeschooling, that adds a whole new kind of stress. I mostly don’t worry about when my kids will learn things. I know they will get there eventually. It’s being forced to hold my kids to a seemingly arbitrary standard that is stressful.
    Bethany V.’s latest post: Raising My Olive Branches: Five Minute Friday

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