Illustration by James Callahan
Every year, in order to prove that we are adequately home-schooling The Boy, we subject him to a fill-in-the-bubbles test from a company approved by the state to assess his progress. I could wax philosophical about why I need the approval of the very state whose education system is the reason I am home-schooling, but I have deadlines and word limits, so we aren't even going to go there.
The second irony is that we prove that he is learning via a standardized test, when, in fact, one of the main reasons that we choose to home-school is because we feel that the public schools focus way too much on standardized tests. I should point out that we don't have to give him a bubble test; we could also submit a portfolio of his work that has been evaluated by someone with a teaching license or a master's degree (both of which I have), but the word around home-schooling circles is that the folks in charge prefer to see bubble tests. So a-bubbling we go!
I ordered the test way before the deadline, because I had nightmares about finding that we had covered none of its contents. When it arrived, I was pleased to see that, in fact, we had covered all of the contents and more. I gave myself a mental A+. I asked The Boy a couple of the sample questions, and when he spouted off correct answers without pause, I gave him one, too. Gold stars for the entire family! I put the test away and forgot about it for the next couple of months.
When testing time drew near, I was chagrined to realize The Boy had never filled in a bubble in his life. And by "chagrined," I mean I felt a deep sense of gratitude and pride. But I was also chagrined in the more traditional sense, because I had a booklet full of bubbles that he needed to trudge through. What if he knew all the answers, but couldn't get the hang of bubbling? I got online and started looking for practice bubble tests.
That is where Tad found me some time later, hunched over the keyboard, hyperventilating and crying.
"All of these tests say first grade on them," I said, gesturing at the umpty-million windows I had open on the screen, "but half of them cover stuff he doesn't know! We suck at home-schooling! We're failing him!"
"I thought you said he knew everything on the test," Tad said calmly. He does a really bad job of feeding into my hysteria. It's aggravating.
"He does," I wailed, "but that's just one test! Look at these!" I waved my arms frantically. Tad shrugged. "We don't have to worry about those tests. We only have to worry about the one the state requires. Besides, any nutjob with a computer can label something ‘first grade test' and put it on the Internet. Half of those probably aren't even legitimate."
He had me there. And if I weren't already wrong enough, he went double or nothing for right points.
"Look, even if he didn't know half the stuff on the real test, I wouldn't care. He only has to score in the twenty-third percentile to pass, and the whole reason we're doing the test to begin with is to keep him away from more tests. If our whole measure of his intelligence was based on how well he did on bubble tests, we would send him to public school." He looked over at The Boy, who was busily building a rack-and-pinion Lego launcher for his tops. "I'm not worried about his brain. The stuff on those tests, he'll learn when he learns." And he walked off, leaving me with my worthless bubbles.
I saw the fallacy as soon as he pointed it out, but a lifetime of testing anxiety — and resulting pride in usually testing well — is a tough thing to overcome. Maybe if I hadn't gotten so many positive strokes in my life for filling in the right bubbles, I wouldn't be so hung up on whether or not The Boy would be able to do the same.
I closed the windows and resolved to let the bubbles fall where they may, and not to make a big deal out of the outcome, one way or the other. We'll step into the bubble once a year, but I don't want to raise a Bubble Boy. There's too much life to live outside the bubble, and that's where I want him to be.