My son does not usually do test prep before taking a standardized test, nor does he usually cram for exams in classes. As a general rule, our educational philosophy is to learn the material as one goes along, and let the tests reflect what was retained. For previous exams (SAT, SAT2 Math Level 2, AP Physics C, AP Calculus AB, AP Computer Science, …), the amount of prep has usually consisted of going through one practice exam and looking to see if there is anything on that test he has forgotten or never learned. If so, he did a little reading and maybe an exercise or two to cover the hole.
The one exception in the past has been the SAT writing section. Because of his problems with writer’s block, we did have his writing therapist work with him on timed essays similar to the SAT essays. He believes that this did help him on the SAT, as he did not shut down for the essay as he might otherwise have done.
This weekend he plans to take 3 SAT2 exams: Physics, World History, and US History. The Physics SAT2 is mainly for college entrance, as many admissions departments require at least 2 SAT2 tests, and pay no attention to the AP exams that test the same subjects deeper. The SAT2 tests in history are to satisfy the University of California a–g requirements, since the ways he learned (a course at home for World History and an unaccredited school course for US History) do not have the UC seal of approval. If he gets at least a 540 in World History and a 550 in US History, he’ll satisfy UC that he has completed the “a” requirement in Social Sciences/History. With what he has already done (in terms of tests and courses), this will complete his a–g requirements. The SAT2 tests this weekend will also provide him with an alternative way to meet the UC entrance requirements: admission by exam, which he will meet if he gets a 580 or better on any of the 3 SAT2 tests—something he should be able to do very easily in physics.
He followed his usually practice for the physics test (looking over a practice test), found a couple of topics that we had not covered yet, and read the textbook or Wikipedia on those subjects. For World History and US History, topics he has learned a little but not really cared much about, he is cramming—by reading (or re-rereading) Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the United States, Cartoon History of the Universe II, and Cartoon History of the Universe III. Together with what he remembers from his courses, those should be enough to get him in the 600s or 700s—probably not an 800, but he doesn’t need that for the history SATs.
The SAT and AP tests are somewhat expensive—though much less so than most of the courses we’ve been paying for, adding only about 5% to the cost of his education. Although some people justify the AP costs by the college tuition one can avoid with AP credit, most of the schools where my son would fit in give little or no credit for AP—they expect everyone to have had courses at that level and still need 4 years to complete the program at the college. We’ve been justifying the expense of the courses as external validation for our home schooling, not as tuition avoidance.
On one of the home-school e-mail lists I’ve been on, the standardized tests have been characterized as “hoop jumping”: doing meaningless tasks simply to amuse those with the power to compel obedience. While I feel that way to some extent about the Common Application and FAFSA paperwork (which I am dreading), I don’t have the same reaction to the standardized testing. The tests have a clear correspondence with what the colleges need to know about students when choosing whom to admit, and so are not meaningless tasks. For home schoolers, they provide an external validation for the content and level of the courses that students have taken that is not otherwise available. They also represent one of the lowest stress ways to validate the courses—certainly much less effort than putting together a portfolio or taking a busywork-heavy accredited course. Note: kids with test anxiety may not find our approach to be low stress—home schoolers have to match their educational strategies to the kids involved.
We have found that the UC a–g requirements and the California high school graduation requirements do involve a certain amount of arbitrariness—curricular choices that we would have made somewhat differently if we had had free rein. For example, we would probably have reduced the English and social science requirements, replacing them with more science, math, computer science, robotics, engineering, linguistics, theater, technical writing, and foreign language. Instead we sacrificed some of the useful stuff (foreign language, linguistics, engineering, and technical writing) in order to meet the letter of the requirements. Even the physics course this year suffered from the lack of time imposed by trying to meet the high school unit requirements for English and history. Next year will again waste a lot of time on not-very enjoyable English and social studies, just to meet the bureaucratic high school graduation requirements—time that would be better spent reading, writing, and studying university-level subjects.