Assessment – Friend or Foe?

National exams drive schools all over the world. Many schools measure their success and build the culture of their school around these high-pressure exams. What is the place of assessment in classical Christian schools? How do students from classical Christian schools perform on national exams? How is teaching and assessment different in classical Christian schools? Is assessment even necessary in the Christian classroom? How can assessment create a balanced culture of grace and excellence in the classroom of every grade level? This is a great talk for anyone seeking specific, practical strategies to use in the classroom.

Trisha Sefton

Trisha Sefton has been writing curriculum and training materials with Rafiki for over five years. She has visited four of Rafiki’s ten villages where she was delighted to work with students, model lessons, train teachers, talk with RICE students, and meet with church partners. Her short time in Africa has further inspired her love of Christian Classical education and increased her enthusiasm for its spread throughout Africa. She holds a B.A. in Elementary Education and is a certified teacher in the state of Florida. Trisha was introduced to classical education in college and was blessed to complete her student teaching in an excellent classical school where she received years of focused, hands on training in classical methods. Since that time, she enjoyed 18 years of teaching in classical education before she married and became a full-time, stay at home foster parent. Trisha is a dynamic teacher who has a passion for training fellow teachers and inspiring students.

Mission-Aligned Planning, Assignments, and Assessment

Mission statements too often grace brochures and walls without informing day-to-day practice in the classroom. Teachers need to consider their school’s mission statements as they plan and execute their classes. When we fail to do so, students perceive that we don’t really mean what is written in our lofty documents. This workshop will focus on practical application of philosophical principles and will be particularly suited for newer teachers.

Robyn Burlew

I am in my third year as Upper School Principal and Academic Dean at Veritas in Richmond, VA. Prior to that, I was at Covenant Christian Academy in Harrisburg, PA, for 15 years, serving in similar ways along with teaching. My rst exposure to the classical and Christian education renewal was while I was homeschooling my daughters in the early 1990s. I have a bachelor’s degree in Biology, with a Mathematics minor, from Houghton College and a master’s degree in Integrated Curriculum and Instruction from Covenant College.

Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning

Bryan Lynch

Bryan Lynch, a founding board member of Veritas School in Newberg, Oregon, is in his tenth year as Headmaster at Veritas. He also teaches Rhetoric, as well as Humane Le ers, to 11th grade students. His rst twenty years of teaching were in the local public high school teaching AP European History, European Humanities, and coaching football, basketball, and so ball. His wife, Ann, also a founding board member, teaches third grade at Veritas. The Lynches have three children, all of whom have graduated from Veritas. Bryan has an MEd. from Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, where he majored in History and Secondary Education.

Understanding and Using the CTP-4 by ER

Many schools who use the Achievement Test CTP from ERB will look at the test results with a “smile” and then left them away, never to be seen again. By doing that schools are losing valuable information that can help them improve instruction for children, improve teaching by teachers, and improve an administrator’s standing before boards and parents. I propose that there are treasures in the ERB reports we can access; we just have to know what we are looking at and how to use it to help us. This workshop would be specifically for schools who use ERB testing for their achievement tests.

Doreen Howell

Doreen Howell has been a part of Classical and Christian education at Regents School of Austin for 20 years. She is Regents “Ambassador” to schools all over the United States o ering consultations and teacher training services in a wide variety of areas. Doreen received her undergraduate degree from Southwest Texas State University and her graduate degree in Education from the University of Tennessee. She and her husband Ron are the parents of one adult daughter who graduated from Regents.

Assessment that Blesses

When we assess, we can guide or confuse our students, sustain or undercut their work, and bless or curse them. Come and explore how to bless, edify, and ennoble your students while removing and overcoming common obstacles to the blessing we seek.

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, founding author of The Lost Tools of Writing, co-author of the best-selling book Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America, which he wrote with Dr. Gene Edward Viet, and is an SCL board member. Since establishing CiRCE as a research and consulting service to classical educators, Andrew has trained teachers, led board retreats, and assisted with institutional development and start up in over 100 schools. Andrew helped start Providence Academy in Green Bay, WI in 1993, where he served as “Lead Teacher,” Foundations Academy (now Ambrose School) in Boise, ID, where he served as Director of Classical Instruction from 1996-2000, The Great Ideas Academy in Charlo e, North Carolina, where he served as Headmaster from 2001-2003, and The Regent Schools of the Carolinas where he served as Dean of Academics from 2006- 2008. He and his family live in North Carolina.

A Critique of Modern Assessment

Modern assessment is not very old and it is not very classical. Where did it come from and why, when it works so poorly and for the wrong reasons, do we practice it so universally? What is useful in our practices and what should we avoid? What would it take to restore and practice a more sound approach to assessment? This talk attempts to begin a long overdue reflection on one of our biggest problems as educators.

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, founding author of The Lost Tools of Writing, co-author of the best-selling book Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America, which he wrote with Dr. Gene Edward Viet, and is an SCL board member. Since establishing CiRCE as a research and consulting service to classical educators, Andrew has trained teachers, led board retreats, and assisted with institutional development and start up in over 100 schools. Andrew helped start Providence Academy in Green Bay, WI in 1993, where he served as “Lead Teacher,” Foundations Academy (now Ambrose School) in Boise, ID, where he served as Director of Classical Instruction from 1996-2000, The Great Ideas Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he served as Headmaster from 2001-2003, and The Regent Schools of the Carolinas where he served as Dean of Academics from 2006- 2008. He and his family live in North Carolina.

Assessment in the Grammar School

Assessment—a sweeping, daunting term, describing any number of methods in the field of education. While the very word often unnerves students and faculty alike, the classical grammar school teacher balks not at the excessive triviality of more administrative red-tape but at the gravitas of a classical expectation for assessment. Assessment in the grammar school claims three tiers, echoing the division of the trivium. Classical educators at the poll-parrot stage primarily anticipate assessing their students by testing memorization, as Dorothy Sayers defends in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Students who have chanted information together in class demonstrate their mastery of each subject by reciting these “pegs” from memory. This, however, is only the beginning. Teachers following the classical model have set their expectations too low if they limit their grammar school assessment merely to mastery learning. A robust grammar school assessment not only includes a component of mastery (a grammar or poll-parrot skill), but also analytical application (an early dialectic skill) and imitation (a pre-rhetoric skill). To illustrate, consider the following description from a classroom at Mars Hill Academy.

Last week the third grade students performed their final graded recitation of “The Nightingale and the Glowworm” by William Cowper. Each one gave a word-perfect rendering of this eighteenth-century poem. The teacher’s objective: word-perfect memorization, and each student did indeed achieve 100%. Later that day, the same class took a grammar quiz in which they analyzed and diagrammed a number of sentences. This time the students hardly demonstrated perfection. As the teacher expected, the students wrestled with the grammar concept in a new context. Most performed in the 90% range. The teacher was quite pleased. That afternoon, in history, these students rewrote the Roman legend of “Horatius at the Bridge.” They were instructed to work through each paragraph, imitating – but not copying – the tale. The teacher checked the students’ work for proper indentation, capital letters, and punctuation as well as how well they captured the “voice” of the legend.

As demonstrated in the classroom snap- shot above, grammar school assessment includes all three aspects of the trivium, beginning on the grammar level. Because both dialectic and rhetoric work depend upon the “building blocks” laid in the memorization of the grammar stage, the teacher ought to expect some element of identical replication from each student. To test by memorization successfully, the teacher must both review with the students and frame that information in a context sympathetic to memorization. Whether with pneumonic devices, meter, or song, teachers help their students to memorize by reviewing facts and figures in the same order. When tested, whether with history chants, science statements, poetry recitations, or math facts, each student will be able to provide three key events of 1453 or the alkaline metals most readily in the rehearsed order. Such consistent repetition helps the student retain the information and encourages the teacher to expect word-perfect mastery around the classroom.

The dialectic or analytical aspect of assessment appears in grammar school when students apply a skill demonstrated in class on their own. Unlike testing memorization, the teacher assesses the students’ grasp of the material by significantly changing the context surrounding the new skill. For example, a quiz on adverbial elements will contain not only new sentences but also a new arrangement of the adverbs which the students have not encountered: some adverbs will appear at the beginning rather than the end of the sentence, and some will appear as phrases. Here the student applies John Milton Gregory’s “law
of the lesson” himself, working with a known skill through unknown material. Because the grammar school student is just beginning to explore this dialectic task, the teacher does not expect mastery. Rather, the teacher is looking for the students’ engagement with the material – for one, as Theodore Roosevelt described, “in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” The teacher expects mistakes; the teacher corrects the mistakes and applauds the diligent, if often errant, effort. A solid performance evidences that the student can apply the skill with 85% accuracy. The same expectation applies to the class’s average grade. In grading the application of a skill, however, the teacher is not primarily concerned with taking away points for mistakes (though he will). The teacher’s interest lies in encouraging those who attempt to create their own contexts to apply their new skill.

A pre-rhetoric component appears most readily in grammar school assessment in the practice of composition. When students begin to imitate the masters in writing, they primarily practice piecing ideas together – not parroting information or analyzing thought. Teachers may require students to replicate a folk tale or a legend at this age. Grammar students need not worry about developing a new story line but should work within the framework of the existing one. Because the classical Greek progymnasmata exercises of writing a fable or a narrative are multi-faceted, they prove difficult to analyze on a rigorous standard. For this reason, grammar school teachers exercising this rhetorical skill may use a rubric scale which assesses several areas to arrive at a final grade, including grammatical (e.g., mechanics, punctuation, and spelling) and rhetorical (e.g., sentence structure and language usage) elements. Teachers allot a set percentage to each area of assessment to determine a grade.

Assessment that follows the three disciplines of the trivium records a student’s understanding of the material in a lesson at the level of memory, in the application of a skill, and in imitation. While the elements of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric together frame a classical teacher’s methods of assessment, each grade level employs a different degree. At the second and third grade level, the grammatical memory still proves dominant; students only just begin to practice dialectic application and toy with rhetorical imitation. Meanwhile, by fifth and sixth grade, just on the cusp of the dialectic stage, students exercise their memorization with longer application and more imitation. Weights for grading memory quizzes, analytical worksheets, and composition pieces change accordingly, as does the amount of time the teacher spends in the classroom working on such skills.

Assessment at the grammar school level, therefore, becomes the seamless preparation for rhetoric school assessment. At Mars Hill Academy, grammar school teachers consider all their students as future rhetoric students. When final exams and thesis projects take the stage instead of the way we normally speak it. The one area where the classical curriculum does not seem to have as positive an effect is in mathematics. Our scores on the Math section of the PSAT are still much higher than the national average, but they aren’t as high as the Critical Reading and Writing sections. This does not mean we aren’t teaching math well; on the contrary, I think our school has an outstanding math program. Math, however, may be a subject that is more difficult for many students to master. We are bombarded with language from the moment we are born. Math, on the other hand, can often seem abstract and detached from everyday life, especially at the high school level and beyond. While it is still our task to help each child maximize his or her abilities—and the classical curriculum is definitely the best way to do that—we must recognize that some of those abilities will have more variation than others.

I end on a cautionary note: The PSAT is given only once a year and must be taken on one specific day. It is not a measure, ultimately, of a student’s intelligence or a school’s success or failure. It is just one test. We should use the information from the PSAT as only one of many means of evaluating what we do—not so we can say we are “better” than other schools, but to reach that goal of guiding our students to become the persons God would have them be.

The Challenge of Education: Classical Education’s Response to Henry Adams

Early in his seminal yet humanistic autobiography, Henry Adams declares his thoroughgoing frustration with formalized schooling. “The chief wonder of education,” writes Adams, “is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught” (55). After finding his own education not in school but in personal life experience, Adams charges the classroom with one main failure: “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts” (379). By his own admission, a Modern (19th century) Harvard education had done nothing substantial for him. Classical education, as evidenced through classical assessment, answers Adams’s challenge to formal education handily.

Though the grammar stage is rife with facts, the dialectic stage of the classical education is driven by discursive reasoning and fueled by logical and rational interaction. By this stage, education is no longer about the “inert facts,” which Adams apparently never got past in his classrooms. Now subjects and data are “grist for the mental mill,” as dialectical pedagogy drives information and ideas in an active process of thesis interacting with antithesis resulting in synthesis. Dialectic students learn to structure their thinking and comprehension of basic facts into logical patterns. Littlejohn and Evans in Wisdom and Eloquence remind us this stage “is designed to help students develop faculties of discernment based on regular patterns of thinking. The point is to bring predictability and order to the students’ minds” (172).

Assessment here furthers the emphasis on dialectic interaction. Littlejohn and Evans offer several options of meaningful assessments to fulfill this classical stage: composing arguments by example, analogy, or authority; composing syllogisms proved by deduction; identifying and avoiding fallacies of conclusion and causation; memorizing and identifying classical informal fallacies; and constructing arguments both in favor of and against the same proposition (109). In addition to these interactive assessments, the classical system of Progymnasmata exercises (also described in Wisdom and Eloquence) provides meaningful opportunities for dialectic students to express their comprehension and reasoning skills through written and verbal presentations.

By forming systems of thought in dialect students, assessed through classical exercises (written, verbal, and mental), classical educators progress beyond simple rote memory of inert facts and prepare students for the continued rigors and more independent syntheses of the rhetoric stage. Francis Bacon once said, “The duty and office
of rhetoric is to apply reason to imagination for the better moving of the will.” Building upon the structures of logical thought formed during the dialectic stage, rhetoric students should now be prepared to synthesize their own analyses in imaginative and analytical ways through eloquent, meaningful expression. Littlejohn and Evans say that this is done through activities that move students from remembering information and testing how well they remember that information in pre-set circumstances toward using what they have learned to solve problems, to connect information from one context to another, or to create a new framework for understanding or describing the world around them. (174) As the culmination of the Trivium, the rhetoric stage allows more freedom for both the instructor and students. Students should be personally responsible not only for their own learning, but also for their methods of assessment, to a degree. We are well past the simple recollection of basic facts and finding the “right answer”: now students need to express themselves and their comprehension of their world as mature individuals responsible for the conditions of their intellects and souls.

The variety of assessments in the rhetoric stage is diverse and rigorous: the common topics of conjecture, degree, and possibility; research; compositions of intrinsic appeals; and, in most classical schools, the senior thesis in written and public defense formats. Discussions and public presentations (especially for a senior thesis defense) are important to be sure, but the primary assessment medium of expression for students to utilize the wisdom and eloquence of a classical education is writing. According to Littlejohn and Evans,

Whether the assignment is a creative topical essay, a critique of a theatrical performance, or a laboratory report, students must be taught meaningful expression through writing. If writing is for reading, we will best serve our students as editors, encouraging individual style and voice while holding them accountable for good grammar, sound logic, and thoughtful applications of knowledge in everything they write. (175)

When done rightly, rhetorical assessments combine the pursuit of truth and wisdom with the freedom of eloquent expression, whose final aim is the formation of adults.

Despite having been failed by a Modern education, Henry Adams himself knew what he had missed:

The object of education for [the] mind should be the teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon…; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn. (314)

What Adams describes is precisely what a classical education provides. When classical assessments follow classical education, students truly know how to learn.

Human Assessment

The plural of anecdote is data.” To a great extent we have the higher education community to thank for the concept of assessment – at least as it pertains to education. Assessment became the mantra of higher education accreditation in the 1990s, leading to the generation of massive amounts of data at colleges and universities across the nation. But, what to do with all these data? That was the dilemma faced by thousands of institutions until the turn of the millennium when accrediting agencies began to realize the purpose of the data produced through assessment was institutional improvement. Suddenly, only data that were relevant to answering questions about institutional direction and strategic improvement were of value, and such data could genuinely help frame and answer questions that, in turn, could guide the improvement process.

Similarly, assessment applied to human performance (i.e., evaluation) must be improvement–focused. And, the best evidence that improvement is possible or, indeed, warranted is, likewise, data. No longer is the subjective opinion of a single supervisor, based upon the perfunctory annual (or semi-annual) visit to the classroom sufficient to convince the professional educator that improvement is necessary or important. Without data trends, corroborated by a variety of sources, the performance review process is reduced to little more than a difference of opinion, often between someone with many years of classroom experience (the reviewee) and an administrator with, perhaps, considerably less classroom experience (the reviewer).

In reality, there are numerous predictors of professional success for the contemporary independent school teacher, with mastery of subject, curriculum development, pedagogy, and instructional and classroom management skills sharing the lime light with other now equally important indicators. Today’s master teacher must also master a growing set of essential soft skills, such as team work, peer and supervisor relations, parent communication, and student relationship building. So, the effective assessment process must accumulate and benefit from data relevant to each of these aspects of professional development and success.

In recent years, Trinity Academy of Raleigh has gradually implemented such a process, incrementally adding survey data from peers, parents and students to already existing supervisor and self-evaluation instruments. Instruments have been collaboratively developed and revised by teachers and supervisors, with input from students and parents, where appropriate. Brainstorm sessions have identified professional and relational skills and characteristics that are valued by each constituency group, and online surveys (Survey Monkey) have been used to prioritize a list of 20 assessment questions for each instrument. Surveys have been similarly created for teaching assistants, academic administrators and administrative staff. Parents and upper school students have completed the surveys online, and staff have identified peers who could reasonably review their performance and whose performance they could confidently review via online survey.

Although we are still learning, we have already seen considerable value in this process for relevant professional development and genuine performance improvement. The data speak for themselves, especially as compared to whole-staff averages for the 20 assessment questions. Staff are readily able to see patterns from multiple sources that corroborate both areas of professional strength and those where improvement is necessary. We have found it to be a creative way to provide objective feedback for typically subjective notions about performance.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of our implementation of the process is building a credible means of rewarding current performance and performance improvement into the process. For three years, our board has designated a generous pool of “merit compensation.” Everyone gets something, but higher performers (as judged by survey data sets) are rewarded more generously. Perhaps not surprisingly, this reward system has been met with decidedly polarized reaction. As NAIS president Patrick Bassett notes in speaking engagements:

The culture of schools’ workplace militates against innovative thinking about compensation: Teachers prefer predictable, non-competitive compensation and resist being “singled out.” NOTE: Research shows, on the other hand, that rigid pay scales discourage high ability individuals to enter or stay in teaching. (Goldhaber, The Urban Institute, “How Has Teacher Compensation Changed?” Selected Papers in School Finance 2000-2001).

The system is not perfect, but is far superior to the “standard” in many independent schools. As Paideia, Inc. president Bruce Lockerbie often quips: “The first evaluation most private school teachers or administrators receive is on the back of a pink slip.”

It is important to express thanks to Eddie Krenson, VP for Non-Public Schools with SACS- CASI, for leading Trinity Academy in the initial process of implementation of principles of performance review that he has personally adapted from Independent School Management (ISM).

AP and the Classical School

Classical educators vary in their opinions of Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Should they be offered? Do the objectives prescribed in an AP course conflict with the objectives of a classical curriculum? If a school chooses to offer AP courses, how many students should take them and when? While these are valid questions, a separate matter that warrants consideration is the value that AP examinations afford both the students and the school even when AP courses are not offered through the school. AP test scores can aid students in college admission and scholarship selection, provide them greater opportunity and flexibility once enrolled. They can also provide schools with data useful for marketing to families and colleges— all of which make offering and coaching students for successful completion of AP exams highly beneficial.

More high school seniors are applying to college than ever before, and GPAs are continually rising. AP tests can help determine which top students are truly outstanding. The exams are scored on a scale of 1-5. A score of 3 or higher yields credit at most US colleges and universities, while 4’s or 5’s are required for the more select institutions. Colleges do not require official reporting of AP test scores before offering admission, but many applications allow students to self-report, and counselors and teachers can highlight competitive scores in their letters of recommendation.

If a school boasts of a rigorous college preparatory program, AP scores can validate its claim. Students from schools with few or no AP course offerings will not be penalized by admissions committees, but top students stand out less without standardized test scores such as AP.

An unweighted GPA of 4.0 takes on new meaning when paired with 5’s on AP tests.

Students applying to highly competitive colleges or prestigious scholarship programs must demonstrate intellectual curiosity, a high level of academic engagement, and a willingness to take academic risks in order to distinguish themselves from other similarly qualified candidates. A recent Trinity graduate transferred to our school at the beginning of his junior year. He was one year ahead of his class in math and accompanied by a stellar academic record, so we offered him the opportunity to enroll in an online AP Statistics course. Doing so positioned him to sit for the AP Statistics exam his junior year and rejoin his classmates in his senior year for AP Calculus. The score he earned, along with other evidence of academic acumen, helped him to gain admission into Princeton University.

Entering college with AP credits also provides benefits beyond the application process. Once accepted, the extra credits allow students
the flexibility to study abroad, double major, or complete an internship–all without extending college beyond four years or forcing students to choose between summer employment and experiential learning opportunities. AP credit can also boost a student’s class standing, allowing him to register for classes earlier and thus affording him greater course selection.

College counselors and teachers should work cooperatively to advise students on whether to take AP exams and on which tests to take. If a school does not offer AP courses in every subject, faculty in advanced courses can familiarize themselves with the AP exam in their discipline and coach motivated students on how to prepare themselves for the test independently. Non-incremental courses such as US History and English Language and Composition are good choices for most students. Those planning to major in math, science, or pre-health related fields should understand the pros and cons of placing out of introductory courses in their major, a situation which could mean they spend their first semester of college competing with upperclassmen for grades. (While colleges may grant credit for successfully passed AP exams, the grades in those courses do not factor into the college GPA.) Ultimately, the choice to take an AP exam should be made jointly by the teacher and the student. They might consider the student’s intended major, the teacher’s opinion of the student’s maturity to prepare and to succeed, and whether a passing score places the student into a higher level of a discipline than is wise for a college freshman.

Regardless of your opinion regarding AP courses and exams, our society recognizes the Advanced Placement experience. Prospective parents may unfairly judge schools that do not offer AP courses or tests in a less than positive light. Solid AP scores on a school’s profile help colleges understand the rigor of the school’s curriculum. At the very least, the merits of AP exams should be considered when advising your high school students.