Where Do You Start?
Placement Tests and Other Orientation Tools
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
More Placement Tests/Assessment Resources
By Vicki Bentley
If I asked you for directions, what’s the first thing you’d want to know? You’d probably ask where I wanted to go, and where I was starting from. Only when you know where I am going and from where I am beginning can you help me determine the best route to get there.
What Curriculum Should You Use?
Choosing appropriate curriculum is one of the most common concerns of parents, whether new or veteran homeschoolers. The word curriculum has early Latin and French origins and means literally to run a course; I like to think of homeschooling as a journey. “What curriculum should I use?” is pretty much the same as asking for directions, figuratively speaking. So, as with any successful road trip, you’ll need to know not only your destination—a well-rounded education—but also your starting point. How do you figure that out?
As a homeschool parent, you observe your child on a daily basis and can probably determine pretty accurately in which areas he is strong and in which areas he could use some maturity or additional help. His verbal interaction with you, his hands-on activities, written work, periodic subject-matter tests (if you use them), and his achievement of goals you have set for him are all informal indicators of his progress and abilities.
But sometimes you can still have trouble orienting yourself, figuring out which homeschool direction to take next. I’m incredibly geographically challenged—known to get lost in parking garages or within a mile from home—and this translates into my often being disoriented in many areas of life; my kids know not to give me the map—just tell me the landmarks to look for! The same process can work for home education.
Landmarks: Scope-and-Sequence Guides
Many parents find it reassuring to have some sort of guidelines for academic landmarks or milestones, such as Robin Sampson’s What Your Child Needs to Know When—with checklists for evaluating progress in language arts, math, science, and social studies (K-8th) as well as character development. A few other resources with scope-and-sequence lists—guides to age-appropriate learning—include:
Another option is placement tests, either informal or more structured. (See sidebar for some placement test resources.) When my daughter switched from one algebra program to another, we weren’t sure where to begin, since different publishers approach the same subject in a slightly different order. So she took the chapter test for each chapter until she got to a chapter at which she wasn’t successful. This would let us know where she needed to begin, rather than repeating the earlier chapters with material she already knew.
Many parents use their children’s standardized test scores as diagnostic tools; in this case, I suggest you hold these scores loosely and remember that these are simply a snapshot of your child on a given day. Also, standardized tests aren’t designed to determine what your child knows, but what he knows compared to other children. So don’t be too swayed by the actual percentile scores; instead, pay attention to extremities in scoring, such as an average math score but a significantly low language arts score.
Assessments for placement purposes usually concentrate on math and language arts because they are skills subjects which are generally covered sequentially. In other subjects, such as social studies and science, it is easier to pick up with the time period or topic in which you are interested. For these subjects, a scope-and-sequence checklist might help you avoid huge gaps, while placement tests are often not as helpful because these content-rich subjects are not as contingent upon grade level.
The providers of scope-and-sequence guides or placement tests may be generalizing a particular school population (such as a specific public or private school) or may be tailoring their placement tests to their own products. Be sure to cover any statutory requirements for your state, then exercise your parental judgment. Use any standardized test, placement test, or scope-and-sequence checklist simply as a guide, not as the definitive answer. Sort of like the little voice in the GPS—you can “recalculate” your route!
Once you have determined where your child “is” in a given subject area—usually language arts or math—pray about what God wants your family to learn this year, then set goals for the year and select materials to help you meet those goals.
If you still feel a bit lost in the wilderness of the myriad options, check out our specialized web sections at Homeschooling Toddlers thru Tweens (formerly Early Years), Homeschooling Your Struggling Learner, and Homeschooling thru High School for more information. And remember that HSLDA members have personal access to our education consultants—who also happen to be veteran homeschool moms. (Not a member? Join today!)