Thursday, May 17, 2012

Stanford 10 Online

Although Texas doesn’t require homeschoolers to take standardized tests, I still like to have my children tested each year. I’m not rigid about it. We miss some years, and that doesn’t bother me. I think standardized testing helps me to identify potential weaknesses in my curriculum. It also gets the kids comfortable with the whole testing process, and that should help them out when it comes time to think about college and the SAT.

Last year, I had Nathan and Megan take the Stanford 10 test, and I was pleased with how it reported the results. Of course, for the purpose of comparison, it’s best to stick with the same test year after year. I decided to make the Stanford our family’s yearly test. This year, when I went to Classical Conversations Testing Services to see who was offering it, I saw that they had an online option! After a few emails back and forth, I was satisfied that it was exactly the same as the written test. I liked the idea of not having to pack everyone up and take them somewhere, so I took the plunge and signed them up. The test was only for third grade and up, so Evan didn’t get to test this year.

This was the first year that the online version was offered, at least to homeschoolers, and I have to say, it showed. The communication was confusing and haphazard, and the week before the test, I found myself wondering if I had wasted my money. Then, the Friday before the Monday test, a detailed and concise email came through (after a series of completely unhelpful ones) that answered all my questions and made me think that we were back on track. This was going to be a breeze.

I wouldn’t actually call it a breeze. The first year newness showed up again on testing morning. It turns out that some of the proctors didn’t really know how to moderate conference calls, and everything was really confusing once again. As I tried to get both Nathan and Megan set up on their tests, the younger boys were having free reign in the house, emptying out the refrigerator, playing tag, and so on. Nathan’s proctor was having trouble with the conference call, so I was helping him out. Then, I looked at Megan and she was sitting in front of the computer screen, holding the phone, with tears running down her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do!” she said, quietly, so that no one on the phone could hear her. I grabbed her phone. “Just keep hitting ‘next!’ You’re doing fine.” In two minutes, she was happily testing away as if nothing had upset her.

So, I’m sitting there in between the two kids- one at the desktop and one on the laptop, nursing Austin and hoping the house is still standing when I get out, and I’m telling myself, “I am never doing this again. Never again.” But right about that point, things smoothed out. The proctors hit their stride, the other test participants figured things out too, and everything started going along as scheduled. In spite of the rough start, the first day of testing ended on time.

By the second day, Nathan was doing everything completely on his own. He didn’t need my help for anything. Megan was able to handle the conference call and the signing in by herself just in time for the last test section.

Okay, enough of my ranting. Here’s the bottom line:

  • The Stanford 10 Online is exactly the same as the written test. The only difference is that the kids are simply clicking the right answer. No more “fill in your answer completely and make the mark dark.” That was a major bonus. No chance of losing one’s place on the bubble sheet.
  • Before the test, you go to the Pearson (publisher of the Stanford) website to run a system check on your computer. (That takes just a couple of minutes and a few clicks.) Then, you download a special browser for test taking. When you open that browser, it “takes over” your computer so that you can’t google the questions as you’re testing. Smart design, actually, and it worked beautifully. Print the emails with test information beforehand!
  • The homeschool parent is NOT the proctor. (This caused a lot of the confusion leading up to the test. We were given access to all this training intended for the proctors, and it made it seem like we were going to be the ones proctoring our kids.) The proctor is contacted through a conference call. For older kids (fourth grade and up) all the testers had to do was call in at the start of each section, and they were given a session number. Type that in and they could hang up and test, calling the proctor if there were any problems. Third graders had to keep the line open longer because their test required more frequent proctor involvement.
  • You need a separate computer for each child, and a separate phone line for each grade. Some of the older grades had staggered start times to accommodate families with children in multiple grades. Also, certain of the older grades actually had the same proctor- fifth and sixth, seventh and eighth, high school- so you'd only need one phone line for each group.
  • All times are Eastern. Pretty simple, but it might help to explain it to your kids in advance. That way, they'll be able to "translate" the section times that the proctor is giving out.
  • If for some reason your computer stalls or goes out during the test, the student’s answers are not lost. Once you get back into the system, he can pick up where he left off.
  • The Stanford 10 is not timed. If your child needs more time when the scheduled session ends, he is supposed to just hit “pause” and the proctor will let him go back and complete it when all the sections are done.
  • Here’s the very best part: We tested on Monday and Tuesday and got the results emailed Thursday! Normally, results take six weeks! Now, I have the results in hand and I can make informed decisions for next year.

This is what could have made it better:

  • Better communication before the test. (I think this will probably be automatic next year.)
  • Someone to watch the little kids. Even though I wasn’t proctoring, I was too distracted to keep track of them properly. (I’m pretty sure they polished off the leftover AWANA candy that I was planning on taking back to church, but no one will ‘fess up to that one.)
  • A trial conference call before test day. This would help work out kinks in advance, and it would be a good time to go over conference call etiquette. (Mute the line! We don’t need to hear your dog bark or your toddler squeal. Not that noise bothers my kids at all.)
  • Staggered start times for all grades so that multiple ages can test without having to have a phone line for each one.

Would we do it again next year? Absolutely. Nathan and Megan are very confident about the process now, and I think they could pretty much handle it on their own. Evan will be old enough to take the online version next year. I’ll probably try to get together with another interested family so that one mom can handle test monitoring while the other keeps the little ones. Otherwise, I’ll just hire a sitter for the two testing afternoons.

I think I pretty much detailed the process. (Sorry to the folks who find this utterly boring!) If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them! I got the feeling as we were taking the test that this sort of thing is definitely the wave of the future.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Evan has started reading!
Now, I don’t mean that he’s started sounding out words and “reading” in that sense.  He learned to read a couple of years ago.  I mean READING.  As in, sitting down with a good book and really enjoying it for a good long time.

He was doing well with actually decoding words and reading fluently, but he hadn’t started to truly love reading yet.  He wouldn’t pick up a book on his own and get lost in it.  Recently, I thought that it was probably time to encourage him to move on to the next level of reading- chapter books.

He had already been reading little kid chapter books like “Magic Tree House” and “Puppy Place,” but I had a hunch that he would be more motivated to read if he had the confidence to dive into more interesting stories.  I pulled out one of my favorite first “real” chapter books- The Boxcar Children.  He started reading it aloud to me, but pretty soon, a chapter a day wasn’t enough for him.  He begged to be able to read more in his free time.  Hmmm, let me think about that- sure!

He came and told me, “I like reading now!”

Sigh.  It’s a wonderful thing to see a child transported to another world by a good book.

I think most parents have a desire to see their children love reading.  Many studies have been done that demonstrate the benefits of reading.  And, of course, reading children are quiet children!  (Except for the giggling caused by some especially clever stories.)  So how do we raise readers- not just children who can read, but children who really want to read?  Well, every child is different, but there are a few things that can help nudge them in the right direction.

  • Teach them to read well.  I can’t imagine that anyone who has trouble reading, or reads especially slowly would enjoy reading.  No one wants to limp through word after word.  It’s my personal experience that some of the kids who “don’t like to read” actually are poor or slow readers, or that they have trouble remembering and comprehending what they read.

I actually remediated Evan about a year ago.  We had been going through a snazzy reading program when I realized that he was stuttering and reversing letters.  I put the brakes on everything and we went back to basics.  We pulled out Phonics Pathways (my favorite learn-to-read book) and just went through that for a couple of months.  The reversals stopped and he began to read smoothly.  When it comes to reading, slow and steady wins the race.  Don’t be afraid to go back or stop completely and pick it up later.  There are also computer programs that help with reading fluency.  I’ve never tried one of them with my children, but if I suspected one of my older ones was struggling, I certainly would.   Timberdoodle has good recommendations.
  •  Read to them.  A lot.  A whole lot.  Start with board books and move on to chapter books and classics.  Read books that everyone can enjoy.   Listen to audio books together.  This is actually worthy of a post all of its own.  Look for that soon.
  • Turn everything else off:  TV, Wii, Ipod, computer, DS, and so on.  Bored children pick up books out of sheer desperation.  In our family, the daily quiet time is a great reading encourager.  There’s nothing else to do for that hour unless you want to sleep.  Technology with its beeping, flashing, many-images-per-second hypnotic characteristics can squelch any desire to read.
  • Be a reader yourself.  Kids learn by example, for better or for worse.  If your time is spent in front of the TV or with Facebook, your kids probably won’t turn into super readers.
Raising readers is worthy goal.  God communicated to His people through the written Word.  How much we read and what we read has a powerful influence in our lives.  Let’s introduce our children to the splendors of the world of books.