Homeschooling Tips: Grading A Child's Progress

If you are a new to homeschooling, or an unstructured homeschooling parent, chances are you've ruined more than your share of manicures from nail-biting about your child's progress. Even for the most seasoned unschooling parents, when talking to friends and family showing off their childrens' gold star stickers and honor roll bumper stickers, often find the shadow of doubt trying to creep in and overshadow their confidence. "Are my kids falling behind?" we can't help but ask ourselves occasionally. "Are they on grade level?"

Before you rack yourself with worries about assessing a child's progress, take a moment to consider what progress really is. Measuring a child's progress is not as easy a trick as institutionalized education will have you believe. The entire concept of "ahead," "behind," and "on grade level," in schools where children are segregated by chronological age rather than ability level contradicts our understanding of the different stages of cognitive growth. That understanding is this: not every student is ready to learn the same thing at the same time. For example, reading readiness comes for some children early at age two, and for others not until age six or seven. Yet, if these children all go to school, they will begin learning to read in kindergarten. That child that learned to read at two is being taught that learning is boring and unchallenging, and may be showered with compliments and gold stars for doing well at something she has already learned. Meanwhile the child who won't be ready for another year or so may become very frustrated and end up with a negative label, such as "slow," or, "failed," because he is unable to keep up with the class. Any little progress he has, which, by his own individual growth standards are great, will still be seen as lacking in comparison to the rest of the class (particularly to that child who had already learned to read before kindergarten).

Furthermore, tools for measurement, such as standardized tests, pop quizzes and homework, are very imperfect tools for measurement of what a child truly grasps, internalizes, and is able to transfer and use in life. There are other areas in life in which standardized tests and grades cannot and do not normally measure: an inquisitive mind, a thirst for knowledge, a positive attitude, a high self-esteem, a willingness to learn, the lessons learned from things not in the textbook, or the ability to permanently retain assimilate concepts.

When assessing your child's progress in homeschooling, don't concern yourself with arbitrary units of measurement invented to run institutions that are educating masses, which are required to impose some type of method of mass assessment. Schools neither have the time or funding to sit down and truly assess each individual student, nor is there a way to measure and compare true progress between students in a simple way on paper. Being a homeschooler, you have the opportunity to more accurately and thoroughly assess your child's progress. When you are worrying about how your child is doing, keep some of these things in mind:


Though a difficult task in a classroom, many educators are starting to keep portfolios for their students to use in accordance with or in place of testing. Portfolios are helpful tools in showing actual progress, like all those little scratches on the wall that shows how they've been springing up year after year. You may have not noticed they sprouted 2 inches in the last 6 months until you made that little mark and compared it to those from the last few years. By keeping a portfolio or samples of what your child is doing, you can periodically go through it and see exactly where she is progressing, and where she has problem areas. For example, if you have three years worth of writing assignments, you can notice that her handwriting has improved, that she is organizing her thoughts and formulating better paragraphs, but that she is still having trouble with subject/verb agreement and spelling the same words wrong. Now you know what you need to focus on, and what you don't have to worry about.

A portfolio for homeschooling assessment should be a working portfolio, or one that shows works in progress. While a showcase portfolio that shows off the child's best, perfected work is fine for when your child's work is being examined by a teach or college admissions officer, as a parent looking to monitor progress, you will want samples of your child's common work to judge together, not just the best of the best.


Having only one or a few students in your home, you will have the time and opportunity to observe what the child is doing and what she is learning much more closely than a teacher in a class of thirty. For example, when you play Candy Land with your pre-schooler, you'll notice when he doesn't get confused between blue and green anymore. When your 9 year old is baking chocolate chip cookies and suddenly doesn't need to ask you how to double the recipe, or get out a pad and paper, but can do it mentally as she goes along-- you'll notice she can multiply fractions in her head. When your 14 year old is able to tell you what the spanish lady at the bus stop just asked you, you'll know those language lab tapes have been taking root.

William Butler Yeats said, "education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire." Remember that when you are observing your children's progress so that you don't just focus on test scores and red check marks on work sheets. How does your child interact with the world around her? How does she go about solving problems? What makes her unique, and what type of things does she accomplish that might not generally be considered schoolwork?

Watch your children. You'll notice that the same task they may have struggled with last year has become something they can do with ease. That means they've learned some concept that they were able to adapt and use. Occasionally, you literally see the "lightbulb" go off in their heads.


Good, old-fashioned talking is a great way to assess your child's progress. Ask your child, what has he been reading? What did he think of that last movie he saw or video game he played? How did he like that museum exhibit? Did he see that article in the news about the presidential election, or notice the blue bird nest on the back porch? Or-- even more to the point-- ask if he's learned anything interesting lately.

Unfortunately, with all the electronic distractions these days, and our ever more demanding schedules, conversation is becoming a lost family luxury. In this busy and distracted world, families find little time to indulge in the art of conversation together. When we do talk, we want to know what they've been doing, solve a family problem or plan the upcoming week. Not that these aren't worthwhile discussions, but talking to your children about literature, the arts, recent scientific discoveries, political issues, things in their own back yard, as well as a host of other topics is good on several levels. It will encourage them to become informed persons on a number of topics, it will boost their self esteem by discussing issues with them like human beings (rather than only talking to them to "parent" them), and you will will learn from talking to them how they are learning about and absorbing their world.


Yes, some tests are useful. But not contrived, fill-in-the-dot tests that teach a child x-y-z and ask them to parrot it back. Look around you; life is full of tests-- or, for a more accurate word-- challenges!

What would make a good challenge for your child? That depends on the child, doesn't it? You can help your child seek out challenges and opportunities such as contests and games, volunteer positions, building things, making things, inventing things, or breaking records. The choices really are endless. Take math, for example. If your child is learning how to count money, you can find out their progress by giving them an allowance to manage, playing "store" or monopoly (let them be the banker!), or asking them to help you figure out the grocery or vacation budget. If your child is learning geometry, let them put it to use by designing and building a dog house out of scrap wood.

Children have the opportunity to face numerous challenges on a daily basis and either conquer them, or learn something from them.


Don't hesitate to ask children for self assessments of their own progress. When your child grows up in an educational environment that is not judgmental or competitive, and has not been given any negative self-images from being labeled or stigmatized, your child will be able to honestly offer some interesting insights on what he understands, what he grasps, what areas he feels he needs work, and what he is interested in pursuing. Not only may you learn something about your child's progress you had overlooked, but you will teach your child a valuable life skill-- how to be concerned about and measure his own progress.


So many educators who express concern about homeschooling say that there may be a big problem with "gaps" in the child's knowledge. When you think about it, though, there are gaps in most people's knowledge. Many people take to reading, but not math (and visa versa). How many adults know trigonometry, or can diagram a sentence? And yet, we are perfectly functioning in our jobs and lives.

Few people are experts at everything, and, most likely, neither will your child be. If your resists history lessons and seems to forget them as soon as he takes them, try not to sweat too much-- just take a look at the stack of chemistry books he's read in the last month, and the experiments he's done on food mold and acid rain.

If you find gaps in your child's education, by all means, try to bridge them. However, don't let a lack of understanding of one area overshadow all the good they are doing in other areas.

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