What Test Results Tell Us

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I took a brief American Civic Literacy Exam today. I passed with an 85%. That's not great. But I console myself with the idea that I was answering based off information I learned while homeschooled prior to 9th grade. My college and high school American history classes were terrible; I don't think I learned much of anything in them.

Hat Tip
Susan Critelli

As I read through the questions, I was struck afresh by just how absurd tests like these are. What difference does the name of FDR's government programs make to history?


What matters is what the New Deal tried to solve, how it got enacted, and the outcome thereof. That matters to history. The title not nearly as much (unless you're trying to write a paper on the subject and need to know what to google).

So let's try this: What do test results tell us?

  • How much the student learned.
  • How smart the student is.
  • The student's grasp of the subject matter.
  • The student's willingness to please.
  • How well the student can recall/recognize key elements.

Granted, the ability to recall and recognize stuff is tied to your retention of the data... which does relate to learning. So tests are very effective at getting us data on how much a person can regurgitate back to you.

But education should be much more than that. So what if I know what Lincoln and Douglas debated? Doesn't it matter more why they held the positions they did and the outcome of the exchange?

My growing suspicion is that we do not learn from history not merely because we can't recall the titles, names, dates, and other testable material, but we've failed to remember or consider the reasons why things happened as they did. We repeat history because we do not understand what was done before us. And recalling the proper labels for the branches of our government isn't going to help.

That's why I love Sonlight's approach to history. Not only can I recall more about American history than, apparently, the majority of my fellow Americans, but we also spent time talking about what these events mean. It was more than points of data. We studied history in the context of people's lives, seeing how their actions created outcomes.

How'd you do on the test?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Empty Nester

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  1. I got 90.91%. I'm better than you at regurgitating facts. Ha!

  2. Elaine Birch

    I tried to beat you but also got 85% correct.

  3. Hooray for 87.88%! I hereby dedicate that awesome score to Sonlight, as I would have been in the dark on most of the questions if it wasn't for being a Sonlight Mom for the last 8 years! But, alas, test scores really don't prove anything. :-)

  4. Steph

    I'm not American, have never studied any American history, but still managed to score 67%, 12 percentage points better than college educators. To me this just reveals the weakness of a multiple choice test and the strength of Public television. :)

  5. Hi Luke, thanks for the hat tip. I had a similar experience with testing when my daughter was in about the 5th grade. My mom was ill and we packed up and went to be with her during her final illness and subsequent death. You can imagine that homeschooling didn't happen much during that 2 months we were there. Later that year, it was time for standardized tests. Under the circumstances, we waited until August to try to fill in some of the gaps in the academic year, but it was all still too overwhelming. So we did the test without any expectations as to how she would do.

    Surprise! Her science scores were in the stratosphere, and her math scores were better than passable. Why? Because she had sat around day after day watching Square One TV, Bill Nye and Magic School Bus on public television while I was caring for my mom, preparing to sell her house, and trying to adjust with an elderly aunt we brought back with us, now living in my home who didn't really want to be there.

    So you can imagine, I wondered what in the world test results were actually measuring! On this history test from the article, I totally agree that knowing the "why" is more important than knowing the "what" - but there are so few who even know the "what" that we have to start somewhere! You have to know that there are - to use your example - checks and balances, before you give a rat's rear how they got there, or are motivated to learn about the kinds of abuses they were intended to prevent.

    I never used Sonlight when I was homeschooling, but I know people who used it throughout their homeschool journey. I enjoy your blog very much!

  6. You crack me up, Chris! Good job <smile>.

    Elaine, Hollie, and Steph: Glad you took the test and were brave enough to post your score. I almost didn't... <smile>.

    Great points, Susan. We absolutely do have to start somewhere! And isn't it odd when a child who has not been "taught to the test" so outperforms those that are? Thanks for sharing the link and inspiration <smile>.


  7. Ender

    My 8-year-old exclusively Sonlight schooled daughter scored 84.5% on this test.

    And the questions she didn't know were challenging: "But I've never paid any taxes! How would I know what a progressive tax is?"

    She just understands so much more than I did at this age. By 6th grade, I knew the Bill of Rights and the branches of government, but nothing else.

    Thank you Sonlight! :)

  8. Ender, I think it's okay that she doesn't know much about taxes yet <smile>. Keep up the great work!


  9. Jane

    I've been a US citizen for 12 days now, :-) so I wondered how I'd do. I got 90.91%, which surprised me. I think it's because my dh was homeschooled K-12 and we discuss current events, and historical ones, all the time. I have learned a lot from him, and also from reading WORLD magazine. I bet he'd do even better. I'm such a fan of Sonlight's approach - read good books, and know the stories behind the facts, instead of just being able to find the true statement and click on it. When answering the questions, it was stories I've heard and articles I've read that came back to me, not individual facts, for the most part.

  10. Great job, Jane! Clearly being interested in this kind of stuff makes a huge difference <smile>. And you make a great point: Stories help us recall information far better than points of data. And congratulations on your citizenship!


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