Classical Assessment, Yesterday and Today

In a series of imagined dialogues, Blessed John Henry Newman, one the greatest authors of nineteenth century England, gave an account of his University’s entrance tests. These oral examinations sought to determine how well potential university students could read the works of the greatest authors in their original Latin and Greek. Newman had definite expectations. Like Dorothy Sayers, Newman believed that a proper education forms deep habits of mind that make a student ready to learn in many subject areas. He should be able to look carefully at the details of anything put before him, judge their intrinsic importance, and express his own thoughts carefully and precisely.

One main portion of intellectual education, of the labours of both school and university, is to remove the original dimness of the mind’s eye; to strengthen and perfect its vision; to enable it to look out into the world right forward, steadily and truly; to give the mind clearness, accuracy, precision; to enable it to use words aright, to understand what it says, to conceive justly what it thinks about, to abstract, compare, analyze, divide, define, and reason, correctly.

The best way to develop this capability, Newman believed, was to become a master of language. A student should be judged by his ability to understand completely the expressions of the greatest writers in Latin and Greek, something he could only do to the extent that he could make his own the ideas of the authors he read. Consequently, the college’s entrance examination aimed to determine:

Whether he understands how the separate portions of a sentence hang together, how they form a whole, how each has its own place in the government of it, what are the peculiarities of construction or the idiomatic expressions in it proper to the language in which it is written, what is the precise meaning of its terms, and what the history of their formation.

Newman’s first example shows a young man being quizzed on the meaning of the word, “Anabasis”, which forms the title of Xenophon’s account of the Greek army that marched 1000 miles through enemy territory to get home. Though the student knows the meaning of the word, he is unable to analyze the word into its roots and forms, or to understand the significance of the title with respect to the whole work, which shows that he has not developed an inquiring mind that knows what it is to know. Often even those who love to read are not very serious about learning.

They cannot state an argument or a question, or take a clear survey of a whole transaction, or give sensible and appropriate advice under difficulties, or do any of those things which inspire confidence and gain influence, which raise a man in life, and make him useful to his religion or his country.

Newman’s second example shows a young man reading from one of Cicero’s letters who is able, when questioned, to explain the form of any word and the role it plays in the sentence, to recall the range of its possible meanings and the one most likely in the context, to consider other words Cicero might have used but didn’t, and why he might have chosen the one he did in the light of his audience and subject. Further, the student could readily understand the questions the examiner used to push his analysis further. And he could assess and adapt to the suggestions made by the examiner.

Newman follows these dialogues with witty and instructive stories showing how the students, their parents and the examiner felt about the tests, carefully revealing the character of both students, parents and examiner. Clearly the examining tutor had in mind Newman’s vision of the mental virtues and skills a strong student required. And he was able to determine by his ever-more pressing questions to what extent the person in front of him possessed them.

Today’s assessment culture suffers from a misconception of education, thinking that education can occur without teachers understanding what they are teaching or being able to judge their students’ progress. Teachers are deemed incapable of making such decisions and judgments. Schools and school systems – both secular and Catholic — rely excessively on pre-packaged assessment products, that in mind-numbing fashion exhaustively list the components of assessment and then train teachers like children to arrive at “objective quantitative measures”. Often these seem promoted more for their publicity value than for their merit in ensuring the best education.

The assessment culture which currently dominates education de-humanizes the entire education process. According to Mary Pat Donoghue, Director of School Services for the Institute, “Today’s assessment culture violates the truth of subsidiarity by pretending that real assessment of the growth of human souls in knowledge and virtue can be made without the teacher, the human being closest to the students themselves. “

Michael Van Hecke, President of the Institute and Headmaster at St. Augustine Academy in California, sees a tendency to “factory-ize” education. External, quantitative, reportable assessment determines success or failure; failures can be corrected by more properly adapted and implemented curricular models, which are put together in education publishing houses. “This is the tail wagging the dog. When students fail, most often it is because teachers are failing. Good teachers know this. All the books on successful students and schools have the same theme: Reform Teachers to Reform Education.”

Teachers must be smart and committed. If they know their subjects and are committed to their students, they will continually find ways to determine whether and to what degree students understand what they hope to teach them. This will include all the ways that teachers use to encourage their students to be active in the learning process. If they find the students deficient, good teachers will first ask what more they can do to help students progress. They will seek the advice of more experienced teachers. They will not rest until they find the way to have their students catch fire for their subject. Even when they determine the problem is in their students, they will look for extra ways to motivate, inspire, and discipline the student.

Mary Pat believes that it is a great mistake to think that assessment should determine what happens in the classrooms. “Teachers should focus on the truths they need to communicate and the virtues they want to form in the students. Then they can think about the different ways they can assess how well they have achieved these goals with the students.”

Mary Pat sees that teachers and schools often need to be pushed from the outside. “None of us really like to examine ourselves.” Administrators must see that their teachers have determinate goals in mind for each unit, along with means of deciding how well they have been met. But the administrator’s chief task has to be putting qualified teachers in the classroom and helping them to grow as teachers. “Do my teachers understand the most important concepts the students need to learn? Do they have a good grasp of the virtues we want to form in them? Have they learned to pay close attention to their students, and found ways to have the students actively show what they have learned? If so, then I can be confident in their judgments.”

Tests and other measures have their place in real assessment (as Beth Sullivan shows), but “soft assessments” are so important they cannot really be measured by numbers. As Mary Pat says, “We have to remember that standardized tests only focus on the lowest level of skills. They are helpful for reporting to parents, and for making sure nothing is falling through cracks. But they are not guides to education.”

Mary Pat encourages teachers to make regular notes on each student. What kinds of questions do students ask of what they have read or of what others are saying? What do they show about their understanding? Do they have an active curiosity? Are they willing to take risks in speaking and receive correction from others? Are they learning to rely appropriately on their own judgments? Student conversation is essential to make these kinds of assessments, and Mary Pat recommends encouraging that as much as possible, such as through Touchstones Socratic discussion circles.

Truly assessment “dominates” teachers and schools; perhaps “tyrannizes” better captures the climate it brings about. It need not be this way. When teachers know what and why they are teaching, and have tasted the real, lasting good they are doing for students, they rejoice in both their freedom and the responsibility it brings. Mike has been teaching pre-Algebra for 20 years. “It is still alive for me, because I’m not teaching a subject, I am teaching kids! I am not checking off standards; I am forming virtues.”