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Thursday, September 4, 2014

What Your Congregation Can Learn from Common Core - Part 3: Testing

At the end of this school year (just like every school year), our students will sit for an exam that tests their knowledge and understanding of the concepts they should have learned over the previous nine months. This year my students will take two tests: the first measures students’ proficiency in “expressing mathematical reasoning and modeling real-world problems.”[1] The second portion will “call on students to demonstrate further conceptual understanding of the Major Content and Additional and Supporting Content” from the courses they’ve taken.[2]

There is not that much different about this year’s assessments when it comes to content. I’m still teaching equations and modeling as well as problem-solving approaches to mathematics. What is fundamentally different this year is the amount that my students will be required to write on their state assessments. Mathematics has rarely been a field where “write in complete sentences” was a part of the instructions. Now, though, my test-takers are required to justify their answers in writing whereas in previous years they could simply select the correct answer from a bank of choices.

Testing is important, whether it’s through the PARCC assessment, the Smarter Balance tests, or simply through the frequent assessments administer to my students that I create. At no point should we teach something that we’re not willing to assess in some meaningful way. Although I frequently hear the objection that we’re “teaching to the test,” I contend that if we decide as a teaching community what we want our students to be able to do, we should then design tests (whether formal or informal) that measure how well our students have mastered those important concepts. Once we have developed a test to measure what is important to us, we then design a curriculum and daily activities that help our students prepare for the test. Thus I say, “of course I’m teaching to the test! I designed it to be an appropriate measuring stick of what I’ve taught!”

In our local congregations we have no such formal tests as the PARCC exam or the other state-level evaluations of academic proficiency. Instead, we have a mixture of evaluative measures that range from attendance in weekly worship to “bonus” activities like volunteering in the tutoring ministry or on Wednesday nights with the youth group.

Is it even possible to have “tests” in our ministerial contexts? I think so, but not tests that require a pencil and a calculator. Instead, our model of testing should be similar to that of the CCSS: we set a very lofty, seemingly intangible goal and design a “curriculum” to help our people meet that goal. We are called to “be perfect,”[3] to “take up [our] cross,”[4] and to “be blameless.”[5] These are very high standards, indeed! Accomplishing these things requires intentional, measured progress in the development of the disciple. We could, and should, in my opinion, develop activities that help us assess our progress on the pilgrimage toward perfection, cruciform living, and blamelessness.

What would these assessments look like? They probably would not take the form of white envelopes that ask our people to check whether or not they were on time, prepared their lesson, stayed for preaching, or brought their Bible.[6] Formative assessments[7] are the necessary method of evaluating our growing disciples, but these assessments are hard to define and certainly not multiple-choice.

Our testing in the local church requires an intimate knowledge of the lives of our neighbors. It is the same supposition that drives our application of Matthew 18:15-20: without knowing our brothers and sisters in the church we cannot hope to help correct, rebuke, or even guide one another. We must know one another before we can hope to evaluate our congregation’s progress. We must be able to share the very real things we think, believe, and do so that such things, once brought into the light, can be evaluated, corrected, or built upon.

There is thus a correlation between church discipleship and church discipline. I am not advocating a return to the Puritanical ecclesial/social church discipline of our spiritual ancestors. My point is that discipleship in its best form cannot happen without a congregation knowing itself and having the spiritual authority to correct itself.

If we are going to aim at such a lofty goal as Christ-likeness, then we must develop intentional methods of evaluating the progress of our pilgrims that go deeper than worship attendance or the amount of time or money given. Our pastors, teachers, and mentors must look deeper into the actual lives of those we lead and “test everything, and hold fast to what is good.”[8]

[2] Ibid.
[3] Matthew 5:48.
[4] Matthew 16:24.
[5] Philippians 2:15.
[7] This is another key concept from the new mathematics curriculum that my district has adopted. I find it tantalizing – we are measuring the formation of my young students into mathematicians!
[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:21.