Whether your child participates in group or individual achievement tests, there are a number of things the homeschooling parent can do to reduce text anxiety and improve test performance. All of these strategies can be incorporated into the regular homeschool routine, and recorded in the log as legitimate instructional activities. Best of all, the ideas listed below can all contribute to your learning goals for your child, no matter what educational philosophy guides your homeschooling.
- The Educated Child: Keep up with systematic instruction in all subject areas. Be sensitive to your child’s interests and developmental level, but don’t let things slide week after week. Discovery learning is great in the younger years, but we live in a complex culture which requires that students develop skills in many areas which may not be inherently appealing to them. When faced with a tedious or distasteful homeschool assignment, all four of our children would hear me say, “You don’t have to love it, you don’t have to enjoy it, you don’t even have to pretend to be interested in it, but you DO have to learn it, and you will be tested on it.” Hold your child accountable for his learning, even in those areas which are more difficult for him.
- If your child scores are consistently below the 30th percentile in one or more areas, heed the warning signs, and get help fast! You can schedule individual achievement testing even after you receive the group test scores, and use the diagnostic information from the individual testing to guide your educational plans for the following year. Also, ask your homeschool evaluator for input about adjusting your teaching methods or curriculum to better meet the educational needs of your child. Don’t just keep doing the same old thing that hasn’t been working.
- If your child still scores poorly, consider having a complete diagnostic assessment done to determine if there are learning disabilities, attention deficit issues or other learning problems which need to be addressed. Be careful about getting “taken” by well-meaning but unqualified people who want to test your child. Some of my families have called me in a panic because of the misdiagnosis of their child by a public school guidance counselor, or an optometrist, or even an elderly neighbor who taught special ed 30 years ago. A professional person doing diagnostic assessment should be a licensed clinical or school psychologist. If you cannot locate an individual in private practice like myself, check with local universities or children’s hospitals which often have clinics where this type of diagnostic testing is offered.
- Math: Around age 8 or so, begin weekly timed drills in basic math facts: by the end of 3rd grade, your child should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide single-digit numbers FAST. You can make this fun by using a stopwatch and keeping a chart of progress, or try the Math-It system (getting all the math fact cards on their correct answers while holding your breath!), timed math games on the computer, or have a friend over to do timed tests with your child.
Teach your child to use scratch paper when allowed – don’t let him always do complex problems in his head, especially multiple-step word problems, division and multiplication of large integers, fractions and decimals, or algebraic equations. When I test children individually, I am always amazed at how many homeschoolers refuse to use paper and pencil to work out math problems, even when I encourage them to do so (and they almost always make a lot of mistakes by trying to do everything in their heads). Mental computation is a great skill, but so is efficient use of pencil-and-paper.
- Reading: Read, read, read! Read aloud to your child (even your older child), have your child read aloud to you and talk about the stories…talk about new vocabulary words, the plot, the characters, what might happen next, summarize what happened in the previous chapter, what motivated the characters, etc. Read poetry, non-fiction, essays, even magazine and newspaper articles. The more knowledgeable your child is about a wide variety of topics, the greater his understanding will be on test day. (Not to mention the fact that reading widely makes us all more competent and interesting people!)
- Teach your child how to look back in the story to find the answer . . . learning how to skim over a selection to find specific information is a very helpful skill.
- Also work on visual and auditory memory – have your child do silent or oral reading, then ask him to summarize what he has read out loud to you. Have him practice remembering what he has just read – he shouldn’t have to look back in the passage for the main idea, characters, setting and basic plot.
- Give him 5Ws book reports to write (who, what, when, where, why, how). For 5th grade and up, focus on the Why? and How?
- Practice choosing titles of main ideas for reading selections. On the standardized tests, students should NOT be creative, but need to think like the boring adults who developed the test.
- Work on gaining meaning from a reading selection even if your child cannot de-code all the words. The first time through, have him say the word “something” for each difficult word; then re-read for meaning and see if he can figure out the words he didn’t know based on the context of the sentence, picture clues and phonetic features. There is nothing wrong with making an educated guess about a word to see if it makes sense in the sentence.
4. Written Language: To develop skills with grammar and punctuation, have your child write, write, write, but take the time to have him correct his errors! Letters to Grandma, book reports, thank you notes, field trip reports, poems, stories, captions for drawings or photos. Make a poster of basic rules for capitalization and punctuation (color-code it, if you want), and encourage your child to refer to it as he writes so he doesn’t have so many errors to correct later. Teach him to do a rough draft first, then help him correct mistakes and re-write neatly for his final draft. Type up a copy of his rough draft with all his spelling or grammar mistakes in italics and punctuation errors marked with an arrow or parentheses. Let him be the editor and correct it with a red pencil.
5. Reducing Test Anxiety: The group achievement test format is overwhelming if your child has never seen it before, so practice filling in the little dots, using a separate answer sheet and scratch paper; stopping when the page says STOP, erasing stray marks or changed answers completely, working within a time limit, working next to other kids but not looking on their papers or sharing answers (this is often a unique challenge to homeschoolers who have no concept of cheating on learning assignments). Consider having your children take achievement tests every year, not just in grades 3, 5 and 8, as required by the PA law. Research clearly shows the benefit of the “practice effect” in lowering tests anxiety and raising tests scores.
6. Develop Test-Taking Skills: Invest in the Scoring High or other practice tests, and work through them systematically for at least 2 months prior to the achievement test. Know what your child will be expected to know and the format of each section of the test. Talk your child through the principles of test-taking that the manual emphasizes:
- following oral directions given by the test proctor
- paying attention to the different directions in each section of the test
- consider every answer choice, don’t just mark the first one that seems right
- quickly rule out the two most unlikely answers
- make your best guess when unsure of the answer
- manage your time efficiently: skip questions that you really don’t know, come back to these later; but don’t skip around on the page; don’t spend too much time on one questions.
- Individual Achievement Testing: If, in spite of all your efforts to prepare your child for group testing, she still cannot manage the group setting or the test format, arrange to have individual achievement testing done by a qualified educational psychologist like myself.