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Using Tests to Promote Mastery Learning: Some Real-Life Examples

Two weeks ago I explained the 80% pass rule that we use to promote mastery learning in our homeschool.  Last week I wrote about some of the practical issues involved.  And today I’ll share some real life examples.  (Note, once again, that in our homeschool elementary students do not write chapter tests.)  

So, how does this work in our home?

Example 1:  Beginning French

A few weeks ago one of my children got 64% on a French test.  (It was about French possessive adjectives, a confusing topic for almost every student.)  So I explained the concept again, helped her with drill assignments, helped her memorize the information, and did a lot of oral practice with her.  Then I gave her the test again.  (Fortunately I could use the same test because it tested the concept of French possessive adjectives in a way that was not memorable at all.)  Sadly enough, there were so many x’s on her test page that I did not even bother calculating the percentage grade.

Instead, I was left scratching my head.  What now?  Never before had we had two failures in a row.  So this time around, she’s redoing every single relevant exercise in her textbook, as well as reviewing the tables of possessive adjectives I made for her earlier.  I discovered that the whole concept of ‘person’ in pronouns confused her, so we’re also working on classifying subjective pronouns, in both French and English.  And, next time, I won’t let her write a test while she is ill, as she uncomplainingly did without me realizing

I hope that later this week we’ll see a great mark when she takes the test a third time, but she is not ready for that yet.  Even the assignments show that she has not mastered the topic…and she’s looking alternately pale and flushed, so I’m afraid she’s not feeling well….

In the meantime, we’re continuing on with the next chapter, since it does not involve anything about possessive adjectives.  That’s better than getting fixated in an “I can’t do French” mindset.  I’m thankful that this daughter is young enough that we don’t have to worry about what the ‘official’ mark will be nor about finishing the material at a certain time.

Example 2:  Advanced Algebra

Another one of my children worked hard and got 87% on math test.  I went over her errors to see if there was any indication that she did not understand the material, but none of them indicated a lack of understanding.  We discussed what she had done, she saw her ‘oopsies’ right away, and I reminded her once more of the importance of showing her work.  If she had, I would have been able to give her part marks for the correct approach to the problem, and her mark would have been over 90%.  Obviously she understood the work but had just made some silly mistakes.

Example 3: Pre-Calculus

Another child did an advanced math test and got all the answers correct but did not show any of his work.  When one is studying pre-calculus (or physics, chemistry, or algebra, for that matter), communicating one’s thought processes clearly is just as important a demonstration of understanding as giving the answer.  As a former physics prof, I insist on this, and he’s been told so very often.  This child needed to sit down and write out his thought processes for this test.  He did not get a perfect mark, though his answers were perfect.  Yes, he had mastered the material, but he had not mastered the communication skills so necessary in advanced math and science.

Example 4: Advanced French

One child will be redoing just one section of a test that he bombed; he did very well on the rest of the test as well as on the relevant assignments.  Since he was ill when he wrote this section of the test, I’ll probably give him the second mark as his final mark.  Simple.  He obviously knows the material.

Important Reminder: 

While one of the advantages of homeschooling is being able to continue studying even when we’re mildly ill, we should avoid testing when someone is not feeling well.  We had that problem twice in the last few weeks, although I was not aware of it either time.  So I need to encourage our ‘tough’ kids to tell me when they are distracted by a severe headache or chills.   

Every child and every subject and every chapter is different, but these examples give some idea of how we use tests to achieve mastery in our homeschool.

How do you use tests in your homeschool?

For more highschool visit No Fear Homeschool High.


  1. Linda says:

    We aim for an 80% pass rate also. For our core curriulum, Time4Learning, I allow passing to be 80 if she does the lessons. There are some times that she feels like she knows enough about the subject to take the quiz or chapter test without doing the lessons. When this happens I require a 90% for passing. There are two reasons for this. 1)I don’t want her to make lucky guesses and pass a section that she might need more practice on and she is really good at lucky guesses. and 2) I don’t want to encourage her to skip lessons for the ease of getting finished faster. If she does not pass a test that she did lessons for, we review the test and then retake for passing score. If she does not pass a test she skipped lessons on, she must do lessons, then retake for passing score. She is still in middle school now, but I am sure that I will have to revisit what is passing when she gets to high school.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      That sounds a lot like the way we do it. Thanks for sharing!

      I like your two reasons for requiring a higher mark for challenging a chapter than for taking it.

  2. Karla says:

    Thank you ladies for the useful information. I’m homeschooling 8th and 5th graders for the first time, and I’m always looking for new and better ways to teach or prepare the kids for tests.

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