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80% Passing Grade: Learning for Mastery

My older children take chapter and lesson tests regularly, and if they get below 80% they fail.  In other words, if they get 79% or less they will redo the material, and I will reteach whatever is necessary.

I’ve seen this concept raise eyebrows and meet with disapproval.  But is it really crazy?  Am I really demanding too much?

Long ago some homeschool writer, whose name I forget, gave me this idea and it does make sense.  Why are we homeschooling?  To teach our children.  Obviously, if they do not understand the material well enough to get 80% on a test, they have not learned it.  It doesn’t mean they are dumb, and it needn’t affect their self-esteem if we treat it right.  It just means that somewhere in the teaching/learning/studying/test-taking process something went wrong, and that we’re going to figure out what and fix it.  Being able to take the time to master the material is one of the beauties of homeschooling.  Our children can learn a topic until they really know it; they do not have to be dragged along, lost, as the rest of the class moves on.

Thus the 80% rule is not crazy, but is actually one of the advantages of homeschooling.

Now, in some subjects I am stricter about this than in others.  For example, in geography, if you forget the location of a river or the main export of a country, that’s not a good thing…but it probably won’t matter much as you study the rest of the world.  In history, if you forget who led a certain battle, you’ll still be able to learn about the next hundred years.  In Bible, if you forget the names of Leah’s children, you’ll still be able to follow the rest of the stories and learn about God’s goodness to us.  Although they are important, details can be forgotten if nothing in the rest of the course builds on them.

But in math, foreign language, science, or grammar, if students don’t understand the concepts in chapter one, they will be handicapped the entire year and probably longer.  In such subjects, each chapter builds on the previous one.  In chapter 2 students are often expected to know and use information learned in chapter 1, and so on.  By allowing a 50% pass in such tests, a mom can set her children up for failure in subsequent chapters.  Actually, even an 80% can lead to trouble, so I generally consider any grade under 90% in these subjects a red flag…especially if the errors show a lack of understanding of the subject matter.

So, if this is such a good idea, why do I do it only with my older children?  First of all, we try to avoid chapter tests in elementary school.  Using narration and other methods, I do my best to keep track of what my young children know just by watching their daily work.  If we meet any problem areas, then I simply tweak what we’re doing.  But as children move on, I can no longer keep up with everything they are learning, and I need to begin using tests as a tool to help us achieve mastery.  Depending on your children, yourself, and your homeschool dynamic, you may wish to begin test taking in grade 4, or you may want to wait until high school.  (Although, since test-taking is a skill in itself, it’s worth learning how to do it well and I don’t recommend omitting it altogether for older teens.)

To us, chapter tests are not punishments or personal threats, nor are they final.  (Hey, even the SAT can be rewritten!)  Instead, tests are a tool to help us ensure that learning happens.

Of course, a few practical issues will arise, and I will address those next Monday.

For more homeschool inspiration, please visit the Carnival of Homeschooling.

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8 Comments

  1. Jenn says:

    I require 100%. We do it until we get it right. It makes keeping grades easy. Everyone is an A student!

    1. Annie Kate says:

      I love it! Good for you. 🙂 Your kids are so blessed!

      Thanks for sharing with me, because I’ve had negative feedback over this issue. Lots of people think an 80% pass is crazy…and I would really like it to be even higher, as much as your 100%.

      I’ve found that for highschool work, 100% is unrealistic for us. But as I said, getting below 90% raises red flags: either something isn’t understood, or the student is not feeling well, or the student is resisting using a certain method — such as drawing diagrams for advanced physics problems.

  2. JoAnn says:

    I go more by daily work grades than tests. Neither of my children are very good test takers, but I check their work daily and I can see that they know what is being taught. Just the word ‘test’ makes them forget some of the info sometimes. Hubby was never a good test taker either, even though he’s very smart. But I agree, whether tests or daily work, you need to make sure they have a mastery of the skills.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      I understand the issue of test anxiety. It’s a big one, and it’s one reason I have my older children take tests at home.

      Anyone planning any sort of post-secondary education will need to take tests, and it’s better to learn to deal with them in the less-threatening environment of home than at a trade school, college, or university.

      It IS possible to overcome test anxiety, and it is possible to learn test-taking skills. A young person’s future is severely limited if he/she is not good at taking tests. I strongly encourage you to figure out a way that your children will get used to tests of various sorts. Perhaps you might even want to give them a whole course about test-taking and study skills.

  3. […] in Marva Collins and a war of words. Tea Time with Annie Kate talks about the mentality of the 80% Passing Grade (something I do […]

  4. On tests for anything competitive (jobs, promotions, scholarships), a score under 80% bumps one out of the running, anyway. Even around the 80% mark, it takes a streak of wild luck and some serious human attrition to succeed. Setting the bar high now might be painful, but it’ll pay off in the long run.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      You are so right! 🙂

  5. […] 80% Passing Grade: Learning for Mastery I’ve seen this concept raise eyebrows and meet with disapproval.  But is it really crazy?  Am I really demanding too much? Long ago some homeschool writer, whose name I forget, gave me this idea and it does make sense.  Why are we homeschooling?  To teach our children.  Obviously, if they do not understand the material well enough to get 80% on a test, they have not learned it. Watch for more in this series at Tea Time with Annie Kate. […]

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