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Filling in the Dots:
What One Life Learning Family Learned From a Test

by Suzanne Malakoff

What One Family Learned When Their Unschooled Child Explored Testing

Although we are a life learning family, the idea of testing is not foreign to us because we have friends who are in school or who are schooled at home and who test regularly. We also know families of natural learners who choose to take a standardized test every year to satisfy state homeschooling requirements. So grade levels and test scores inevitably become a part of the conversation at the end and beginning of every school year.

Fortunately, our state also accepts open assessments, which mimic how I was evaluated at the experimental college I attended, and where I designed my own degree. Last year for Natasha’s assessment, we looked at all the different things she had done in the past year, which curriculum categories they fit into, and most importantly, how they were relevant to her and to life in general.

For instance, a trip to the local food cooperative where the kids help with shopping and writing down prices can fit into a number of categories: math, social studies, reading, and writing. The assessment created family conversations around how we had spent the year, where we had been, what we had enjoyed, and what we might not try again.

This year Natasha, now ten years old, wanted to know at what level she was reading. I told her she was reading very well and enjoying books, that there was no reason to worry about levels and grades. She began reading in stops and starts when she was five. At the age of seven, that magical click happened in her brain and she has never looked back. She loves books, spends time lost in them, hates for a good one to end, and can talk intelligently about what she reads.

However, my encouraging response didn’t satisfy her; she wanted something quantitative. I reluctantly offered to get her a test. I hoped she would resist because I want my family to be free of the stress that grades, test scores and other pigeon holes created by the educational system. But she was eager, so I set my prejudices aside and made the opportunity available to her in the same way I would any other resource.

I had trouble taking the test seriously, even though Natasha did. In fact, she was worried about her performance. She has always learned what she needs to learn when she is ready, and she has always been clear about how I can help. I guess this time she needed me to help her to try a test!

We approached the test in our own style. Following the advice of a friend who tests every year, I read through the test booklet first, picked out areas where I felt Natasha might have trouble and started cramming with her in preparation. Her younger brothers were jealous of the extra time I needed to spend with her, so I gave them spelling words and math problems and let them learn along with her.

Unlike in a real testing situation, we had two weeks to complete the test, so we began by doing a section or two a day. When it was obvious that she had had too much, we stopped and did something else. We had just started on the third section of the test when she put her head down on the table and said she just couldn’t do it, that she was going to get it all wrong. She looked near tears. She brightened when I suggested that she put the test away and go outside.

She worked at the table while I worked in the kitchen and, of course, was free to stretch, sigh heavily, cry out in joy or frustration over the questions or go to the bathroom or get a drink of water.

One important barrier to Natasha’s confidence on the test was the vocabulary within each section. Having knowledge of specialized vocabulary doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that you understand the topic.

She understands that “The big black horse.” doesn’t make sense when it stands alone. She realizes that the “The big black horse ran.” is a complete thought because the action completes it. She also knows that “The big black horse ran swiftly over the sand toward the ocean.” makes the sentence more interesting and leaves her wanting to read more.

She doesn’t know that “ran” is a verb or that “ran swiftly over the sand” is the predicate and “ran” is the simple predicate. So when she looked up from her test and asked, “What do they mean by ‘simple predicate’?” and was obviously frustrated, I didn’t hush her or tell her to watch her time. I stopped the test, explained what is meant by “predicate,” pointed out an example of what the test writers were looking for, and then let her carry on with confidence.

Filling in the dots takes the joy out of problem-solving and finding the answer. It’s tedious and there’s no creativity involved after you’ve filled the dots in by circling left to right, right to left, outside in and inside out.

Natasha knows fetlocks from forelocks and what color a bay pony is as opposed to a gray one. She knows words like stallion and mare and bay all refer to horses. Her knowledge of this specialized vocabulary shows not only what she knows, but what she loves. Unfortunately, these words weren’t a part of the math problems, grammar exercises or spelling lists.

Testing situations are artificial and create stress that doesn’t always exist in the real world. Natasha struggled with math problems that are usually easy for her because she didn’t have enough time to spend on them. I can’t think of any real-life situation that has you solving 45 math problems in 35 minutes. My job involves math on a daily basis, but I take the time I need because accuracy is more important; I have a board of directors that demands it. That’s real life stress.

I used the test to find out what she doesn’t know and what she would like to know. She wants to learn long division and get past the simpler problems to the more complex equations. That’s not a request that I ever would have made as a child! I didn’t want a test to spoil her interest in learning that skill, so I gave her a times table to refer to when doing division. That way, while testing, she became more familiar with the tables and long division became clearer and easier; she didn’t focus as much on the time ticking away.

Our whole family learned a lot through Natasha taking her test. We enjoyed the challenge of answering the questions or solving the problems or finding out what the writers of the test actually meant and how many right answers there can sometimes can be.

We learned that we don’t like artificially imposed time limits when we know we could do a better job if we had the time we needed to complete the task. Timed tests don’t prepare you for deadlines that are a part of life or that you may choose to impose upon yourself.

Filling in the dots takes the joy out of problem-solving and finding the answer. It’s tedious and there’s no creativity involved after you’ve filled the dots in by circling left to right, right to left, outside in and inside out. And they all have to be filled in with a number 2 pencil. Natasha figured you could make some interesting patterns on the page by using colored pencils. Of course, there’s nowhere on the test to credit her for creative or artistic thinking.

Natasha’s test results showed what we already knew: She reads well – very well – is meticulous about math, has pretty good understanding of the world around her and is bored by tedious, meaningless tasks like filling in the dots. But then, who isn’t?

We learned that testing won’t be a big part of our learning together, though we may not be able to get around college entrance exams should any of the children head in that direction.  But I’m confident that when she is ready, Natasha will seek out the appropriate resources and prepare for whatever test she needs to get past to launch herself into a new direction of learning.

She doesn’t worry any more that others take tests, and that we prefer not to. She enjoys making up test questions like “True or false: how many eggs in dozen?” Or “If we order a veggie pizza and a pesto pizza, and Dad is on the west side of the table and Natasha is still reading the menu, who gets the most pieces?”

I never relied on well-baby checks to tell me if my children were growing and developing at the right pace. They grew bigger, ate more or seemed to exist and stay active on air, walked and talked at all different stages, but changed every day. It is still obvious to me when they are doing well or are in need of extra care and attention.

Our family doesn’t rely on test scores to measure our progress. Constant questions didn’t stop after the age of four as everyone said they would; the simplest tasks can bring on the longest strings of questions. The kids happily bury themselves in books, workbooks, puzzles, games and play and take an active interest in whatever we are doing or whatever is going on around them.

Natasha’s test results showed what we already knew: She reads well – very well – is meticulous about math, has pretty good understanding of the world around her and is bored by tedious, meaningless tasks like filling in the dots. But then, who isn’t?

By taking an active interest in what my children are involved in and doing my best to stay tuned in to how they are feeling, I stay aware of their physical, mental and spiritual progress. I have every reason to be worry-free about their health and their ability to learn and grow. No standardized test can give me that kind of peace of mind.

Suzanne Malakoff lives and learns with her husband, Jan, and their three children, Natasha, Eli, and Aaron, near Olympia, Washington. This article was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2005.

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