To test or not to test?

To test or not to test?
Written by contributor Lora Lynn Fanning of Vitafamiliae

When I was just starting out with homeschooling, I sneered at the idea of tests. “Why should I teach to a test?” I wondered. We were going to simply soak up information with good literature and activities and I would just KNOW that my kids knew everything they were supposed to.

But then my kids began reading independently. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure what they knew any more. So I ate my helping of crow and added the evaluations (or tests) that can be purchased with my curriculum.

As I began to use tests, I discovered some of the holes in their information, mostly where their reading comprehension hadn’t completely caught up to their reading ability.

But I also saw that sometimes my teaching of a subject was lacking. I occasionally mistook what the actual focus of the material should be. We focused too much on specific battles of the Civil War when my kids really needed to grasp more of the overall causes for the war. That would be important for them in later years and I had gotten too bogged down in the fun details to see the forest for the trees.

(That isn’t to imply that the fun details aren’t worth learning. But I didn’t want them to miss the overall point of our studies.)

I also learned during several oral exams that one child has a particularly difficult time remembering names – new vocabulary terms, people, big words… he knew the basic sounds or syllables but had a hard time stringing them together to make a specific word. To that end, I made sure we added lots of vocabulary review toward the end of the week to help him roll those words off his tongue and say them correctly.


Most importantly, however, I discovered my kids had no idea how to take a test. True or False? Never heard of it. Matching? Nope, they were writing answers out to the side and drawing spider webs on their papers. And fill-in-the-blank? Please.  Their little heads exploded and they turned the word bank into some sort of matching game.

And while there are all sorts of tricks to test taking and their test grades are by no means the GOAL of our learning, I realized that this test-taking business was important. At some point, some day, someone else who hasn’t taught them from birth might need to evaluate their knowledge. And I don’t want that to be the first time they’ve ever seen a multiple choice question.

So we kept at it. All through the year. It took at least four months for my boys to understand that the tests were even significant. It took another two months to hit upon the proper motivation to get the boys to take them seriously. (A combination of constructive bribery and threatening to make them repeat assignments was our solution.)

But over the last three months, we enjoyed using the tests as intended – to help us find the weak spots in our children’s learning.

The kids no longer mind taking them and they began to show general proficiency in taking the different forms of tests. Last week, they took their last test of the year and I prepped them for an oral “exam” on their entire year’s learning. We played lots of games to help them practice. By the time they took their last test and final exam, they were ready and scored nearly perfect scores.

I’m not trying to brag. My goal for the year wasn’t perfect grades (I usually didn’t record them) or total retention. My goal for using tests was simply to teach them how to retain knowledge, how to take a test, and to grade myself on how well I taught them a subject.

And while we didn’t achieve perfection, we certainly achieved a good head start.

Do you use tests? Why or why not?

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. Just curious, if the curriculum you are using has no tests, what do you do?? I have my kids write summaries of most of what they read (cause our curric. is reading based) but is that enough? Its not the usual test taking….they do chapter tests for math, and science tests (which they usually bomb). They also came from public school so theyve taken tests, but I do not believe they are good test takers overall (as so many other things they are lacking from going to public schools, sigh). Any suggestions? We use Sonlight, btw.

  2. Hmmm. Very good points! Not something I’ve given a lot of thought about, that is, my boys having that basic how-to-test knowledge. We do do work sheets though and matching, fill in the blank, etc. have been part of that and I do some occasional and informal “testing” whether oral or written. But I will definitely give this are some more consideration.
    Tracy @ hall of fame moms’s latest post: Enter to win! VTech InnoTab 2S Wi-Fi Learning App Tablet

  3. Excellent points. Another point for thought is that some states do require end of the year testing (i.e. Virginia) and if you move into one of those states, but have never tested… it could prove to be a challenge. If our well learned children decide to go to college (most of us hope that they do), they will most certainly need to know all about testing and its significance.

  4. Tests are snapshots. As anyone who has ever taken pictures knows, you can unintentionally get some pretty weird pictures with a camera and a single click. Use daily measurement instead. Here are some simple examples.
    1. See how many words your student can read aloud today in one minute. Check it using the same passage tomorrow. Write the scores for corrects and errors down. Keep doing it each day for a minute until the student reads 200 words per minute orally with no more than 2 errors. (125 words per minute for k-2 students).
    2. Ask the student to write down as many ideas from the story as possible in one minute. Repeat until the student produces 20-30 words that explain relevant story ideas.
    3. Dictate spelling words at 1 per second for 1 minute. Have the student write as many as possible. When they reach 20-30 with no more than 2 errors, get a new list and do the old list once a week for 3 weeks for maintenance.
    4 Take a page full of math facts. Have the student write or say the answers until they can do 1 per second. (the national average is 30 facts per minute, but you know how well kids are learning math at school. Trust me. Get them to 60 per minute. it pays big dividends later.)
    Now instead of taking a snap shot, you are making a movie. A particularly good or bad day becomes a blip, not the entire picture. You now have better information for making decisions about moving ahead, reviewing, etc. I have a set of 5 blogs on my website to help you with getting and using good progress information. Or you can always call me at 1-877-368-1513 to discuss tests and measurements as procedures.

    • Timed tests may work great for some children but one of my twins was considered behind in Reading because he didn’t read fast enough. Once I began homeschooling him, I took ALL timed test away and he is so much more confident in his abilities to read and is doing SO much better in his reading. Being fast is not a wonderful example of how much a child knows or how well a child is learning. One day I will bring back speed test but only when he is ready.

    • I always loved timed tests, and my oldest does fine with them. But our middle kid panics – like, full on freak-out – even at the idea of being timed. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to make it fun and take the pressure off, but having any kind of timer going – even if it’s counting up and not down – and even if I’ve made it very clear that there’s nothing at stake – shuts her down completely. My husband is the same way. Some people do not perform well with time pressure. Until I observed this in our daughter I assumed that was something that could be learned or trained, but it seems to be such a deeply embedded part of her personality, now I’m not so sure.
      Annie Reneau’s latest post: The Big Kid Promised Land

  5. So interesting! I have no homeschooling background, but this post reminded me of giving spelling tests to my chatty fourth-grade class, a group that just had to comment on each word or example sentence I gave. The whole give and take in a testing situation was somehow lost on them, silly squirrels.
    Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: An Interview with Donalyn Miller, Author of THE BOOK WHISPERER, Part III

  6. My stomach churns at the word test. Maybe if I had been homeschooled like your kids I would have learned how to take tests and they wouldn’t have such negative connotations.
    As an aside. I have my masters degree in early childhood education without ever taking a test. For undergraduate I did a SUNY college without walls, and then graduate school, Bank Street College. It was all papers. no tests. YAY!

  7. I do not test my youngster, currently in 4th grade, we use narration instead and that tells me what she has comprehended or not. But she does have quizzes in her math. I do test my high schooler, as its part of her grades and I think it’s important they learn how to take tests.
    Angela’s latest post: Someday

    • I like the narration idea! I think my Dad must have done something similar with me – I never noticed as a small child, and then by the time I was old enough to be taking tests I had decided I wanted to experiment with some part-time schooling.

      Frankly, for an academically-inclined student, tests are not all that challenging to figure out how to do. Multiple-choice is tricky if you think things through – that could require some training – but low-level self-directed noodling about with online tests and things was about all I needed to succeed in school. I DID however find it helpful to learn how to “do school” – how to sit in a desk, learning what the teacher wanted me to learn, when they wanted me to learn it; doing the homework that’s assigned whether I needed it or not, etc. It’s a good discipline and did, I believe, prepare me better for university.

  8. I was homeschooled all the way through (except for highschool, which was blended self-directed/brick-and-mortar for two years and then teacher-led online for one year) and the first tests I took were in Junior high – standardized tests I decided I wanted to take because I was curious. Oh, and I forced my Dad (primary educator in our house) to give me spelling tests. I find it fascinating to consider evaluation, how do we do it, and how do we do it best!
    I appreciate your perspective that testing is to determine what the kids actually KNOW and don’t know; what they’re comprehending, and where they’re struggling. My biggest problem with tests is when they reduce understanding a bunch of facts and motivation to a number or a letter produced at the end. I hope to someday homeschool any children I might have, and I mostly hope that they’ll come out of it curious, motivated, and able to see the gaps in their own knowledge and seek to fill them. How to best get kids there, I’m not sure. I’m wary though of providing GRADES. Much as I personally begged for them as a kid, when I started taking formal classes, I found that my motivation dropped significantly. Perhaps that’s not because of grades, and perhaps not every kid will find themselves so focussed on the marks, but it’s something I wonder about.
    A chance to know what your kids know and help them to fill in gaps in knowledge is so important though! I applaud your willingness to think it through, change your mind when you felt it was necessary, and keep your kids motivated and interested through it (well, as much as any of us can control that!).

  9. Like I always say, you cannot manage what you do not measure. There are many creative and subtle ways of assessing a student’s progress; none of which require a traditional standardized test. Just through observation, discussion, and listening, you can obtain loads of accurate information on your student. Actual paper-pencil tests are not necessary and in many cases, are detrimental to the learning process.

  10. For me, I decided to have my boys take the times Iowa Basic tests when they reached about 4th/5th grade, to learn as a class, how to take timed tests.
    Testing is a skill they will need all their life and part of our homeschooling journey!
    Martha Artyomenko’s latest post: Grace’s Pictures by Cindy Thomson

  11. I had my son take a standardized test this May. This is my 2nd year homeschooling him and we’ve done well in a delight directed learning environment. My husband and I thought it would be prudent to see what he knew. I know what he knows and what he doesn’t. I had the opportunity to see the test he took (but not his test, mind you.) My stomach fell to the floor as what was covered in math was NOT covered in the curriculum I had chosen for him. We will not receive the scores for another few weeks, but again, what I learned was that that little voice in my head which said this might not be the right math program for us, was confirmed as truth. I thought my son behind in the program he’s been working on. It was not only confirmed that he was behind, but also that the book he’s working in is behind what other 3rd graders could know. Standardized testing was a real eye-opener for me. It showed me what a good book and an okay book can do/not do for your child.

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