By Alexandra Shires Golon
As a former homeschooling mom - who also happens to work at the Gifted Development Center - other homeschooling parents often ask me, “Why is assessment important if we plan on homeschooling?” My answer, though likely more than they wanted to hear, seldom has anything to do with obtaining an IQ score. A number indicating a child’s intellectual abilities probably won’t change how a parent constructs a homeschool curriculum, or the speed with which the homeschooled student progresses through his or her studies, or whether or not any special provisions are necessary. Homeschooling is already a uniquely specialized environment geared towards meeting the needs of the individual child. In my work consulting with homeschooling families, I have yet to come across a family that did not have each child’s needs first and foremost in mind. It can be tricky, though, to fully understand what those needs are.
Assessment Versus Testing
Before discussing the benefits of having your child assessed, let me first be clear on the distinction between “assessment” and “testing.” Testing is typically one aspect of a complete assessment. It can include any one of a number of intelligence tests from group administered to individual (preferred), and it, generally results in an IQ score for the student.
Assessment takes an in-depth look at the child’s abilities, including strengths and weaknesses. And, potentially, it can uncover hidden disabilities. A comprehensive assessment usually offers insight into personality and learning styles; which can have a profound effect on the learning environment created by the family. Assessment also can include a measure of the child’s self-perception—critical information to those responsible for educating the child.
Reasons for Assessment
So why assess homeschooled children? Because in the years spanning your children’s primary and secondary education, any number of changes could happen that might require them to attend a traditional school. From one parent losing a job, to moving to a place where homeschooling is more restricted, to family demands that require both parents to work, to divorce, etc.; there are as many reasons for families being forced to take a break from homeschooling, or stop altogether, as there are for homeschooling in the first place.
Sometimes none of these life-changing events occur. It may be the child that wants to attend a traditional classroom for any number of reasons. If your child were to enroll in a traditional school setting, having a complete assessment as documentation of abilities would assist you in advocating for appropriate grade and subject placement. The school would then be able to take into consideration not only the child’s birthday and portfolio of accomplished work, but also the wealth of information gleaned from a comprehensive assessment.
Assessments Uncover Weaknesses
Assessment also is critical for determining if your child has any weaknesses. Parents seeking assessment will sometimes ask, “Why can our child do some things amazingly well, and yet have such difficulty with other things?” Assessment can reveal a variety of learning disabilities including vision or auditory processing deficiencies, dyslexia, dysgraphia, AD/HD, auditory or visual weaknesses, and more. If there is any history of these concerns, or hypersensitivity on either side of the family (including first cousins), it is wise to assess your child to rule out hereditary issues.
Many gifted kids have learning disabilities that remain undetected because of the child’s giftedness. For example, I once worked with a child whose reading comprehension scores were five grade levels above his chronological age. No one suspected a problem with his visual system because his giftedness hid the fact that his eyes did not track together. After being randomly selected at his school’s vision screening it was discovered that each of his eyes was actually reading a different line of text, simultaneously! Six months of vision therapy cured a problem no one yet knew existed—a problem that likely would have continued to go unnoticed until symptoms appeared such as fatigue, headaches, underachievement, etc. Appropriate modifications of a child’s home and learning environment may be in order, depending on the learning disability, so that your child may develop optimally.
Understanding your child’s strengths
Understanding your child’s strengths is key in preparing an appropriate curriculum. A curriculum that moves too slow, features too much drill and repetition, or does not adequately challenge the child is likely to result in resistant behavior or underachievement.
When I consult with parents who are just beginning to homeschool their gifted child, I advise them to create an eclectic curriculum of their own. There is no “boxed,” or pre-packaged curriculum that can take into effect the many grade levels most gifted children are functioning at, at any given time. One of the hallmarks of raising a gifted child is contending with such asynchronous development. One seven year old boy I worked with could read at a 9th grade level, succeed in math at a 6th grade level, and write (creatively) at a high school level, but had the handwriting of a six year old. A customized curriculum, along with keyboard instruction, and this child was one happy, productive student. He had never been exposed to more than second grade level social studies so his mother used his 9th grade reading level as a basis for selecting materials.
However, few seven year olds are ready for the subject matter in the non-fiction reading requirements of a high school curriculum (think Edgar Allen Poe, The Scarlet Letter, or 1984!). A typical homeschooling curriculum could not have accommodated this child’s wide range of abilities. If you pick a curriculum at too low a level, the learning becomes boring and the student becomes disengaged. Pick a curriculum at too high a level and the student feels he or she can’t possibly succeed and either is stressed trying or gives up completely. Somewhere there is an optimal match—finding it is the key. The materials of each subject need to be carefully selected using the child’s emotional and intellectual development as the criteria.
Insight Into Learning Styles
As the parent of one extremely visual-spatial learner, I can tell you it is imperative to understand—and honor—the preferred learning styles of your children. As my kids and I approached any new subject, we brainstormed together about how to present it visually. Often my children came up with remarkably effective, visual ways they would like to learn the new material. From maps of South America in multiple colors of clay (including transparency overlays of the ancient Aztec, Mayan, and Incan civilizations) to gigantic sheets of butcher paper (to trace the paths of the first Polynesian explorers and Lewis and Clark), we always incorporated some interesting visual activity to accompany and expand upon our traditional curriculum. We weren’t finished truly appreciating a Shakespeare play until we had dissected it, diagrammed it and created a cartoon version of it!
A lot of the parents I consult with are auditory-sequential (step-by-step learners who think primarily in words) trying to instruct their visual-spatial children (big picture thinkers who think and learn in images). A thorough understanding of their children’s learning styles is often enough to change resistant kids into students who are passionate about learning - an attitude change that can make all the difference when school is home and home is school. (Please see www.visualspatial.org for more information on identifying preferred learning styles.)
Insight Into Personality
Along with learning styles, it’s important to understand your children’s personality styles. Many people confuse introversion, for example, with shyness. But introversion entails much more and it can impact the learning environment a homeschooling family creates. Knowing that your introverted child would prefer to read a good book alone over having a dozen kids at the house, will cause you to think twice about insisting she participate in a homeschool co-op. Understanding that interaction with others is actually a need for your extraverted child will dictate that you find opportunities for sports, drama, or other large group situations for your son. An evaluation of your children’s personality traits, including the degree to which they are extraverted or introverted, would be helpful.
An Unfortunate Event
While highly unlikely and certainly not pleasant to think about, if an extremely unfortunate event involving a serious head injury were to occur, an assessment of intellectual aptitude would enable you to prove to an insurance company the most accurate level of your child’s abilities prior to the event. Many insurance companies treat test scores of average or above on post-injury testing as evidence that no damage has occurred, unless pre-injury test scores exist. While this is an unlikely scenario for most of us, it could be an added insurance, or level of protection, to obtain necessary services for our children.
Characteristics of Giftedness
The following Characteristics of Giftedness Scale from Dr. Linda Silverman, Director of the Gifted Development Center, may help you in determining whether or not an assessment for giftedness is appropriate for your child:
Good problem solving/reasoning abilities
- Rapid learning ability
- Extensive vocabulary
- Excellent memory
- Long attention span
- Personal sensitivity
- Compassion for others
- Moral sensitivity
- Unusual curiosity
- Perseverant when interested
- High degree of energy
- Preference for older companions
- Wide range of interests
- Great sense of humor
- Early or avid reading ability
- Concerned with justice, fairness
- At times, judgment seems mature for age
- Keen powers of observation
- Vivid imagination
- High degree of creativity
- Tends to question authority
- Shows ability with numbers
- Good at jigsaw puzzles
In a study of 1,000 children, when parents felt that their child fit ¾ of these characteristics, the child tested in the superior range (above 120 IQ), 84 percent of the time. 95 percent of parents were correct that their children had some areas of giftedness combined with weaknesses that lowered their scores.
Summing It Up
Why should homeschooling parents seek assessment of their children? So that they can confidently provide an optimal match between their teaching and their children’s readiness to learn; taking into account the special nuances that make-up their children. Assessment will allow them to understand their children’s behavior, be prepared to advocate for them in a variety of situations (as a homeschooler or not), facilitate a more harmonious home and learning environment by honoring each family member’s personality and learning styles, and help their children develop under the most ideal conditions by taking into account any disabilities or weaknesses.
Alexandra “Allie” Golon served as Director of the Visual-Spatial Resource and Marketing Director/Homeschooling Consultant for the Gifted Development Center in Denver, Colorado. As a former G/T teacher and parent to two exceptionally gifted boys, she brings a wealth of experience to her book, Raising Topsy-Turvy Kids: Successfully Parenting Your Visual-Spatial Child.