How to Measure Your Child's Learning When Homeschooling

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Teachers use many different tools to measure how well their students have learned a concept or topic, such as pop quizzes, standardized tests, oral presentations, and persuasive essays. But to some degree, the correct use of these kinds of assessments rely on the subject matter being taught in a traditional way in a traditional school environment by a traditional kind of teacher!

When you homeschool your child, you might ask yourself "How do I know if my child is learning anything?" This is one of the most common questions asked by parents new to homeschooling because the style of learning is so different from traditional schooling.

This doesn’t mean you can’t measure your child’s learning at all during homeschooling, but that you have to find creative ways to evaluate their progress. If you’re concerned with having a quantifiable record of what your child knows (and, by default, what they don’t know yet), here are some ideas for figuring it out.

Taking a Different Approach

In theory, you could spring a surprise spelling quiz on your child or ask them to stand at the front of your living room and give a presentation on their latest history unit. But those aren’t the only ways to understand what your child has learned and, for the most part, those types of assessments work better when the information has been taught in a classroom.

It might seem redundant to have your child do a book report on the chapter book they read when they spent three weeks gushing over every detail of the plot and characters at the dinner table. You know they know the material so it may not be necessary to “test” them per se.

Within the walls of your homeschool, assessment will likely look much different than it does in a traditional school.

When you teach your child, you assess their progress as they learn. Maybe you already know they’ve got their multiplication tables down but are struggling with division because you're working with your child regularly and have a solid understanding of what they know and don't know.

In a traditional classroom, one teacher may be responsible for many students. Therefore, a classroom teacher might not have the same intimate, one-to-one knowledge each of their students' progress and will rely on more standardized evaluations to see if their students are learning new material.

How Much vs. How Well

Many new homeschooling parents stress about whether their child is learning “enough,” but what does “enough” really mean, and where does our definition come from?

Much of what kids learn in each grade level is based on a school district’s adopted curriculum or the material that standardized tests cover, which means that external factors drive both the content and pace of learning in traditional schools.

Your child, when learning at home, doesn’t need to follow a traditional trajectory. You can start wherever they are developmentally and work your way up from there, taking things as fast or as slow as necessary. This way you can focus less on how much your child is learning in terms of quantity and more on how well they’re learning the material.

For example, let’s say you plan to cover all of the classifications in the animal kingdom over the course of five weeks, but find yourself falling behind. You spent three weeks on birds, not one, because your child wasn’t ready to move on to reptiles: they wanted to build a birdhouse, search for birds on a nature walk, visit a local aviary, and watch a documentary about birds more than once.

Did you “fail” in this scenario? No! Instead of thinking your child learned less because they got sidetracked, consider the depth of their learning here—that’s a better metric for evaluating their progress than the quantity of what they accomplished in a certain time frame.

Creative Assessments

Ready to see how well your child is learning what you’re teaching them? Here are some outside-the-box ideas for measuring their progress:

Talk to Them 

Better yet, ask them to talk to you! Maybe, at dinnertime with other family members you can ask your child what they learned at school.

You can require that they only share one thing, but that one thing will likely spin off into a larger conversation. Asking your child to explain what they’ve learned to someone other than the person who taught them is a good way to see if they’ve retained any information.

Switch Roles

There’s an old saying that you don’t really know something unless you can teach it to someone else, and it holds some truth: putting your child in the role of teacher, rather than student, can help you assess what they’ve learned.

Try asking an older child to coach a younger sibling on addition and subtraction facts or read a picture book together so the older sibling can help the younger sound out words they don’t know. 

Give Them Projects

Instead of assigning tests, quizzes, and reports, you can assign your child projects. Give them a recipe and instruct them to triple it by multiplying ingredient amounts (some of which can be fractions!). Ask them to design a simple machine to perform some necessary household task.

Additionally, you can tell them you’re planning a road trip and need to map out a route that gets you there in a certain amount of time and plan for stops every 100 miles. This approach lets you see both what they’ve learned and how well they can apply their knowledge.

Think Digital

Most of us have stood in front of a classroom of our peers, trembling as we make our way through an oral presentation worth 30 percent of our quarter grade. And while learning the skills of public speaking and reporting are valuable, delivering this kind of presentation isn’t the only way for your child to learn them.

Remember that there’s a whole world outside of your home and that the internet allows your child to present information in a multitude of ways to a larger audience.

Your child can record a kid-friendly video and post it on YouTube, put together a short-but-informative TikTok, or even make an iMovie-style presentation to show family and friends.

As a parent, you need to consider your child’s safety online and determine how public, if at all, their video content should be. You may want to opt for keeping your YouTube video private and only share the link to trusted contacts, or have your child create a TikTok video without actually uploading it to the platform. 

Look for Progress, Not Percentages

With the mindset of assessing quality versus quantity, don’t fall into a trap of thinking your child isn’t doing well in homeschool because they only answered 60 percent of his math questions correctly—you need to consider the context of their learning.

If they only answered 40 percent correctly the last time you evaluated them, they made progress, and that’s an important metric. (If they are consistently answering 60 percent correctly over a period of time, then you’ll want to look into why.) 

Open-Book Tests

Many homeschool families prefer to teach their kids how to find and utilize information rather than memorizing it, focusing on the art of learning how to use dictionaries, encyclopedias, and trusted digital resources when they have a question.

Using this approach, you may want to consider doing open-book tests, where your child’s ability to find and interpret the information they need is prioritized over rote memorization.

However, memorization is a useful tool! Memorizing facts is like exercising a muscle; it makes your brain stronger in other ways.

Plus, some facts—like two plus two equals four—need to be memorized to pave the way for more complicated work down the line.

But there is a difference between useful memorization and memorization as a shortcut to true understanding. (How many of us have crammed for tests last-minute, memorizing facts just long enough to get a good grade before promptly forgetting everything?)

Make sure the things you ask your child to memorize will be helpful as your child moves through grade levels. 

Observe Their Learning Process

How do they respond when they don’t know the answer to something? Do they know where to look, or how to ask for help? Are they eager to learn more about their favorite topics? Are they constantly asking you questions about dolphins, or math problems, or U.S. presidents?

A child who is actively engaged in their own education—who seeks out information and wants to fill gaps in their knowledge—is a child who is learning to love the simple act of learning. That’s a child who is successfully homeschooling!

Step Back

As a homeschooling parent, you’re probably pretty involved in the minutiae of your child’s learning process, but that might mean you’re unintentionally inserting yourself into their education more often than you should.

It’s good for all students to struggle with challenges from time to time, whether it’s solving a tricky word problem or reading a book above their usual level.

Make sure that sometimes you step back rather than in, giving your child the space to resolve learning challenges on their own. If they can’t, they may be too reliant on you—and you’ll learn something about how well they’re mastering the material you’re teaching them.

Maintain a Portfolio

It can be hard to see how far your child has come without a visual representation, so consider keeping a portfolio to look back through from time to time.

Throughout the year, include notable projects, art work, and assignments, as well as your own lesson plans, to make it easy to track just how much learning your child has done. It will probably be more than you think!

When to Use Formal Tests

Even though we’ve avoided more formal, standardized methods of evaluation in this list, there are some concepts that can be tested in a more formal way.

Math and Spelling

Things that rely on memorization—like spelling, states and capitals, or 1 to 10 addition and subtraction facts—may be best learned through the kind of drills that happen with flash cards, pop quizzes, and timed tests. 

Language Arts

With the language arts, it’s important that your child know how to express themselves in writing without your help; the occasional research paper or persuasive essay can be useful in figuring out where their skills are and which ones, if any, need strengthening. The same goes for presentations and book reports, to ensure that they can interpret information and share it with others.

Know Your State's Homeschooling Laws

As always, make sure you know what the homeschooling laws are in your state. Some states require annual testing of homeschoolers through their local school district.

Many homeschoolers also choose to take the SATs or ACTs in high school, to prepare for college applications, so at some point it may be necessary for your child to get comfortable with formal test-taking (even if it isn’t a priority in your homeschool). 

If you’re not confident in assessing your child’s learning, you can look into hiring a teacher or private tutor to do it for you. There may be several education professionals in your local area available for a work-for-hire arrangement, with the skills (and outside perspective) to evaluate your child’s knowledge in certain topics.

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