Assessment testing

Standardized assessment testing is not required for PSA homeschoolers in California, but we wanted to do it anyway.

Fingers hold a small card that says, "What can you do today that you couldn't do a year ago?"
Photo by Mikel Parera / Unsplash

California homeschoolers (who are homeschooling under a PSA) are not required to take any standardized assessment tests. I probably don't have to tell you how those tests have become a brutal, crushing weight on our school systems, leaving educators hamstrung and kids' educations warped beyond recognition. There is a lot to hate about what has happened with standardized testing in our country.

That said, as homeschoolers, the picture is quite different, simply because we don't need the tests. The results of the tests don't jeopardize our funding (because we don't have any funding), we have no pressure to perform on them in any particular way, and they don't need to dictate anything we're doing. They are simply a snapshot, and can be a helpful outside tool to help us see where we are, what we may have missed, and what we may choose to focus on in the future.

The question of whether or not we would do standardized testing has been banging around in my head right from when we first started considering homeschooling back in early 2019. I didn't even know if the same sorts of standardized tests available in the schools would be available to us (they are!).

As I researched the possible tests we could use, I was quickly drawn to the MAP Growth test by NWEA. This test is used in thousands of brick-and-mortar schools, and has been for decades. It has two features that made it a particularly good fit for us.

The first feature is that it is an adaptive test. That means that it doesn't have one set of questions given to every 3rd grader—instead, as each question is answered, the test adapts, giving more or less advanced questions as necessary. This is an important feature for asynchronous learners, as many 2e kids are. I honestly couldn't really tell you what level Wanda is at—and that's part of what motivated me to want to do this assessment. Wanda is in 3rd grade, but the educational materials she's working on are largely meant for gifted 4th graders. Without external validation, I can't help but second guess myself. What if I'm pushing her too hard? What if I'm way off-base and blind to something? What if she's missing some foundational understanding that we whipped through too quickly? My rational brain knows that there would be plenty of signs if any of that were true, but oooh external validation is a really nice thing to have when you're dealing with an outlier.

The second feature that appeals about the MAP Growth test is that it is not timed. It really can't be, because the adaptive nature of the test means that the test itself is different for each kid, and the duration can't truly be predicted. Breaks are not only allowed, they're encouraged. Wanda does not respond well to timed performance situations. It's an added layer of pressure that can throw her off. She can't help but focus more on the ticking clock than the problem in front of her.

MAP Growth has three age ranges of testing available: K-2nd grades, 2nd-5th grades, and 6th grade and up. When she was in that K-2nd band, I knew she was already doing work above those grade levels. I could have bumped her up to take the 2nd-5th test, but would it be frustrating for her? I decided to wait, and I'm glad I did.

Many schools start using these tests at about 3rd grade, and as we reached the end of this school year, it started to feel like the right time for us, too. She's matured so much in the last year, especially around handling frustration. By age, she's right in the middle of that 2-5 grade band, so I could be more hopeful that the testing range would be an appropriate fit. I told Wanda a bit about the tests and asked if she was interested. She was game.

Signing up for the tests

The NWEA MAP Growth test Wanda took is the exact same one given in schools, delivered in the same way, from their website, on a computer. We used a company called Homeschool Boss to purchase, schedule, and proctor the test.

There are four tests, taken across four days: Math, Reading, Language Usage, and Science. Some people/schools only do the Math and Reading tests, so the Language Usage and Science tests are optional add-ons. The four tests together cost $90. Homeschool Boss made purchasing and scheduling the tests a breeze, and it was all handled online.

We were able to choose the time slots for our tests. I scheduled the tests to happen across one week, one each day on Monday-Thursday, starting at 9:30am every day. Each test is predicted to take between 45-60 minutes. I didn't schedule anything else on these days, other than exercise before the test, and playdates in the afternoons.

Preparing for the tests

There isn't much to do to prepare for the tests, but the preparation we did helped a lot. It was mostly about helping Wanda get in the right mindset for the test, and helping her know what to expect. Setting expectations is particularly important for an adaptive test, because it can get really hard. It keeps going until the kid gets about 50% of the questions wrong, and that can feel bad if you aren't ready for it!

The NWEA website has a whole section, aimed at kids, that helps them understand what the test is all about. There is a cheesy-but-otherwise-just-right video to help the kid understand that this isn't a test you're trying to get an "A" on, this is a test that's only trying to get a snapshot of where you're at. So, you can't fail it, it's not about that. It's just about trying to do your best. It also gives some simple, classic test-taking tips, like eliminating any obviously wrong answers, and making your best guess if you don't know the answer for sure.

There are also several short videos that walk them through the test-taking interface, which includes some great built-in tools to help kids organize their thinking as they work. These include a built-in notepad, a calculator (available on some but not all math problems), and even tools for highlighting text or marking out obviously wrong answers.

After watching those videos, there are short practice versions of the four tests. These were a big help, so Wanda had a chance to tinker with the testing interface, and had some idea what to expect when the real tests happened.

Watching the videos and doing the practice tests took about 30-60 minutes, and we did it the Friday before the assessments. She liked taking the practice tests, especially the science one, and was champing at the bit to dive into the real ones on Monday morning.

Monday: Math

She was SO EXCITED to take this test! Which really surprised me. Okay, kid! I set her up to take the test at the dining room table, and set myself up behind her in the living room, far enough away to not interfere, but near enough to supervise.

I'm glad she went in with some fire in her belly, because she needed it to get through this test. As I mentioned, it's estimated to take between 45 and 60 minutes to complete each test. But it keeps going... and going... and going... until the kid gets 50% of the questions wrong.

Friends, this test took 2 hours and 11 minutes. 😳

I was a mess. I had grand visions of being productive while she was doing her testing (maybe finish some half-baked blog posts in my drafts!). I couldn't. I was on pins and needles, but I had to hide it and not freak Wanda out. I dove into the New York Times Crossword app on my phone to distract myself.

She was such a trooper. This test was hard, especially towards the end as it figured out her level of challenge. She needed several breaks. None of the breaks went over 15 minutes (breaks longer than 15 minutes are allowed, but require an assist from the proctor). We did a snowball fight for one break, we looked at cat memes and silly cat videos during other breaks. There were several points where she got very frustrated, but we didn't have any full-on meltdowns (whew!).

She really hit a wall at 1 hour and 45 minutes. I am honestly shocked she made it that long before starting to say, "I don't think I can do this." She asked for a lollipop, which is an excellent idea: for ADHD kids, having something to do with their mouth can help their focus, and so can a little sugar. With a cherry Tootsie Pop in hand, she was ready to dive in for more.

You can imagine her relief when the testing screen finally told her she was done! At the end of the test, raw scores are displayed on the screen, without any indication of what those numbers mean. That screen can be printed. The full test results, with analysis, are emailed to you later (I had them the next morning).

Wanda was a bit antsy to hear how she'd done. There were several problems she wished she could go back and re-do, because she realized later what she'd done wrong. I told her that's totally okay, that the test is meant to do exactly what it did: measure her doing her best in the moment, and for everyone, that also includes lots of mistakes, too. There are supposed to be moments like that, and it's all taken into account. I praised her mightily for hanging in there for such an unexpectedly long test!

Tuesday: Reading

After the first test took so... very... long, I was a bit wary about how the second test would go. I did what I could to help Wanda set her expectations.

The second test went much more smoothly. I thought it would; reading doesn't have the same potential for frustration as math (at least for Wanda, YMMV).

The test took 1 hour and 13 minutes. Much shorter than the day before, to our great relief, but still a fair amount beyond that predicted 45-60 minute range.

She didn't get frustrated, but she did struggle with a bit of boredom. At one point, she entertained herself by opening up the testing interface's built-in notepad, and wrote a beautiful bit of existential prose. For obvious reasons, there's no copying & pasting from the test interface and we couldn't take a screenshot, so that ephemeral writing is lost forever. Oh well!

She needed a couple of short breaks, and another lollipop about halfway through, but it was a much easier day. I was still on edge the whole time, though, oof.

Wednesday: Language Usage

The reading test is all about comprehending others' ideas, while the language usage test goes the other way; it's about how language is constructed to ensure comprehension by others. In short it's a writing test.

This test was a breeze. It was over in only 34 minutes, with no breaks needed. Gave her a lollipop anyway.

Thursday: Science

The final test was the one she was most looking forward to, because she had the most fun with the practice science test.

But it was hard for a new reason: she LOVED the questions, and was completely inspired, they really got her wheels turning. She wanted to talk with me about the problems being presented, and what she thought of them, and the other ideas she had about the various scientific scenarios.

My friends. I LOVE SCIENCE. A LOT A LOT. Talking science with my kid is my favorite. But it would have been very against the rules (and the point!) of the test to engage in any conversation with her. I had to tell her that it hurt me as much as it hurt her, but I really, truly, could not talk about the questions with her until it was all over.

This test took 37 minutes, no breaks needed. I suspect (and I have heard) that a kid's performance on one test influences the starting difficulty level of subsequent tests, which would explain why the later tests took less time. If so, I'm grateful for that feature.

What we got out of the testing

So... was it worth it?

YES. Wanda said she really liked doing the tests; she thought it was a lot of fun. When I told her we would probably do it again in a couple years, she let out a great, big groan of disappointment. She wants more testing! It's a big relief to know that should she need to do tests in the future (maybe even timed ones), she has this useful experience under her belt, and will likely do just fine.

Another big takeaway: she realized how much she likes science. I've long noticed that the way her brain works is very science-compatible, but to her it's just been one more subject (and one we often don't get to until later in the day, when she's a bit worn out). So this is the first time she's really noticed that science is totally in her wheelhouse.

I got the full results for each subject the morning after she took the test (faster than the company's estimate of "a few days"). The full final report, with results and analysis of all four tests, runs 70 pages, with a lot of small print. It has a ton of detail about the skills Wanda demonstrated, and the new skills she's ready to start learning. It also includes Wanda's estimated Lexile reading level, within a range of 150 points. I'm happy with how our curricula are serving us, but I'll still pore through the report to help give me a few ideas for focus areas.

I don't want to get into specifics of how Wanda performed on the tests 'cause that's her own business, but I do want to share enough to be helpful for you, especially if you are in a similar boat, with a gifted or 2e kid.

What I got from the results, more than anything, is validation. Validation that she is indeed able to demonstrate the things that I thought she knew. Validation that my teaching approach, and the curricula and other resources I've chosen, work really well for us.

But most of all, I got validation that Wanda is indeed an outlier. When I've followed my hunch that she needed materials well beyond her grade level, I was not wrong, I was not fooling myself, I was not imagining things. She has radically unusual educational needs. When your kid doesn't fit the expected tracks, it can be very lonely, and rather scary. The typical roadmaps for childhood education and development are of very limited use to us. Having an external source, one with a bit of heft behind it, verify that (with literal outlying dots on graphs, even!), well, honestly, it helps me know I'm not crazy.

Wanda, wearing a yellow-and-white striped sundress, holding a pink cupcake. The whiteboard says, "Congratulations! Last day of 3rd grade!"
We're celebrating the end of another successful and fun year of learning with cupcakes.
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