Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When High Stakes Testing Comes to Sunday School - A Reflection

Disclaimer: I truly don't think there are any bad guys in this story. Each person, although they have some personality quirks, is a caring individual trying to do his or her best. I am obviously the hero of the tale, but take that with a grain of salt as well...I write the blog.

Once upon a time... ok, this isn't going to work. I am not nearly that creative.

Context - A Pluralistic World of Competing Objectives

No deep thoughts. I just like this cartoon.
Many of you who follow my twitter account know that my three children are affectionately named Prime (the 10 year old), the Undivided Middle (7), and Ender (3). Each year, we wait with baited breath to see what the Sunday morning catechism class will hold in store for us. Each year it is a little different. This year, our downtown parish, about 60-70% Hispanic, was holding the Undivided Middle's COMMUNION class as a mixed language class immediately after the Sunday English services.

Having discussed issues of language and culture in a mixed ethnic parish before, I knew that it was important to our parish priest to have more opportunities to have the two different parish populations have more experiences together.

OBJECTIVE 1 (PARISH PRIEST): The English- and Hispanic- speaking parish populations should worship and learn together.

As the class began to meet, a number of concerns began to arise from my perspective as a parent. My daughter described classes as "boring" (never a good sign) with a significant portion of the class presented in a way that she could not understand. Working in schools, I held off judgement and tried to keep the rotor-blades of my every-present helicopter in check.

I did this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I had experienced clashes before with the Director of Sunday school when I was a catechist. As an English-only speaking catechist, it was difficult for me to teach within a bilingual structure. I tended to assist. But my beliefs in education (student-based, deeper understanding, you know, constructive stuff) tended to grate on the nerves of head teachers who preferred a more by-the-book, memory intensive style. I will never forget my shock early in my participation in this  system to discover that if I presented a lesson in English (as a translation to the few Caucasian students), every student in the class, Hispanic and white, understood me. Almost all of the students in the class were English-only or bilingual. So when I went in to discuss this phenomenon with the directors of the program (through translators), I approached it from my basic premise:

OBJECTIVE 2 (ME): The purpose of catechism classes is religious instruction

Boy, was that off base. It was explained to me (by three people no less) that the only opportunity these students (meaning English-speaking bilingual or English-only Hispanic students) had very little opportunity to use their real language out in the world. The whole point of the system in this parish was to teach culture and heritage and give a circumstance for language use outside of the home.

OBJECTIVE 3 (DIRECTOR OF SUNDAY SCHOOL): The class is an opportunity for culture and heritage transfer and language application


But as the months passed, I became less and less enthused at the quality of instruction my daughter was receiving. In an effort to balance my gun-shyness with an attempt to reconcile what was going on, I decided to observe the classroom. Environment: the "class" was a walled off 1/3 of a dining hall with 4 rows of 10-15 chairs crammed in. The back "wall" was the hallway that served as a thoroughfare between the parish offices upstairs and the kitchen. 40+ kids age 8-14 were expected to sit, pay attention, and learn from lecture for an hour and thirty minutes each Sunday.

The teacher was harried. He taught the lesson in Spanish, then English. Most prayers were in Spanish. Most readings were in English. There were attempts to elicit feedback, but with that many students, one-on-one was a myth. The most bizarre occurrence was about an hour and fifteen minutes into class, another adult showed up. She was clearly comfortable and a part of the routine of the class. She spoke in all Spanish and the bilingual instructor walked over to a set of obviously Caucasian students to translate. As I watched large clusters of students zone out, I quietly asked one of the Hispanic students in the back row what she was saying (it seemed to be unrelated to the larger lesson I had observed). "I don't know. It's only in Spanish and only the white kids get it translated" Ouch! I was to find that this mini-lesson had something to do with fulfilling OBJECTIVE 3 (presumably due to having a Caucasian bilingual teacher).

The next day, I sent off my email offering to be an assistant in the class. My hope was that two adults might be able to break up some of the monotony and provide some way to deal with a language disparity that was definitionally more than skin deep.

Experience - The More Things Change, the More High Stakes Testing Looks the Same.


  • Imagine my surprise when I was given my own class.
  • Imagine my even greater surprise when my class was in a large classroom with whiteboards (yes!)
  • Imagine my further surprise when I found that my class was not to be the estimated 15 students, but a much more balanced 23 students: all of the kids who spoke no Spanish or were much more comfortable with the English language. Most of these student had one or both parents who spoke little to no English.

Preparing Prayer Flipbooks
My first class: I followed right out of the Catechesis book for the content. We mixed it up with some reflection and story telling from the students. They made flipbooks using art supplies that I brought in. Their homework was to use the flipbooks with their parents to learn review the prayers. It was a lot of fun. There was a strange moment when the second adult from the other class came into the room (audible groans from the students, I kid you not) and attempted to call out the Hispanic children for their special lesson. Since she asked for them in Spanish, she was soundly ignored by all but three students. Uncomfortable.

Following the class, I had an impromptu meeting with the Director of Catechesis (the person over the Sunday School Director). He told me and the other teacher (whose class size was greatly reduced and now structured in a large circle with tables - progress!) that the plan was for a test to be given the next Sunday to determine if the students were ready for communion. If they were not ready, they would need remedial classes during the summer.

A high-stakes test:

  • Next Sunday.
  • No preparation (the kids/parents didn't even know).
  • No review.
  • And 1st Communion hung in the balance.


The good news is that the director was open to alternatives as long as they culminated in the high-stakes exam. He explained that the Archdiocese was clear in its expectation that Communion was not something to be taken lightly and that it was necessary for students to have some baseline knowledge before participating.

OBJECTIVE 4 (ARCHDIOCESE): Catechism classes transfer baseline essential knowledge in order to qualify for benefits such as sacraments.

We agreed to finish out Lenten/Easter instruction in classes, inform parents about the tests that would take place after the Easter recess, spend at least one day in review of the material, and then use a common test among the classes. When I asked if I was allowed to see the exam, I was told that it had not been written yet, but that I was more than welcome to draft one. I declined, as I had been teaching all of one week.

Students had their 1st confession. Parents, having received my letter about the high-stakes test were full of questions. They felt annoyed that they had not been told about this. They were frustrated that invitations had already been sent out, transportation for grandparents arranged, summer plans made that precluded any type of remediation. They were defensive. They were caring parents who wanted to see their children participate in the culmination of the classes they had been dutifully attending all year long.

One parent summed it up best: "Why do you get to decide if my child has Communion. When a parent says it's time, it's time, no?" And years of social promotion in public schools had a ring of truth to them.

OBJECTIVE 5 (PARENTS): Class is a placeholder that results in sacrament. (Seat-time = promotion)

A comparative lesson: What is real? What is symbol?
The test was painful in so many ways. I would say painful in a way that only educators would understand, but its just not true. There were the usual criticisms that come with hurried test construction: obvious answers (a question asked the student to identify the three members of the Holy Family; the answer bank included only one item that had three nouns), obscure trivia, and a lack of anything beyond level 2 of Bloom's taxonomy (that's being generous). But it was a test created off the Archdiocesan template and covered the information in the same way as was required.

I offered my opinion for an alternative: Set up interviews with the instructor and the parents and students. Make it about what was learned and find out readiness qualitatively. -- This was soundly rejected by OBJECTIVE 4.  (There is a corollary that has something to do with high stakes only being measured by matching or muliple choice but I'll let that one slide).

We reviewed. It was straight test prep. I needed a shower afterward.

We tested. it was painful. Many student failed. That was fair; the system had failed them.

I began to inform parents that despite a year of instruction that had objectives other than preparation for the high-stakes exam and other than religious instruction in general, that their students would need to prepare for remediation. And all of the excuses that were told to me were repeated. They were then given to the Director of Catechesis. And he listened. Each excuse that was given was a legitimate reason to waive the high stakes.

OBJECTIVE 6 (DIRECTOR OF CATECHESIS) The course is to teach as much as possible given the circumstances and encourage reflection on readiness. But ultimately, parents will choose and conflict will be avoided.

Suddenly the high-stakes exam was a no-stakes exam. I felt frustrated. That was a week of test-prep and a week of testing (not to mention, student stress, parent conversations, and grading) that could have been better spent on walking through a service or learning how to make an Examen of Conscience. The Director attempted to assuage me by encourgaing me to explain to parents that, while it was their decision, they should really take the results of the test to heart and choose to send student to remediation. Of the 23 students, one set of parents chose to have their eight year old daughter stay in Communion for one year -- and she had passed the test.

Reflection: ...and the one in the middle


When we do professional development, whether it is integrating technology in our BYOT-laden classrooms or creating individualized projects for students, we always begin with "what is the learning objective?" This experience was a clear indication of a time when the learning objectives were not unclear, but stood in direct conflict with each other.

Psst...What is the answer to #6 "God is...?"
The mantra from non-educators in charge of educational oversight is that testing and standards are the answer to what ails education. But this educational microcosm is just an example of what is going on in the real world. High stakes tests are attempting to measure something using the methods that they have at hand. But big-box test companies, even the best of them, do not assess creativity, or critical thinking, or problem solving very well. There is no test to measure spiritual readiness to receive a sacrament.

But oh do we want one. Complete with data. And Graphs. With Lines that Trend Upward. For Free.


  • Trustees and superintendents want statistics that prove superiority and a job well done.
  • Legislators want a ranking list that does not show America at the bottom.
  • Parents want their children to be successful in life as a whole, starting with good grades.
  • Teachers want the students to learn and grow and to be appreciated and respected for that.

Everyone has good intentions. Everyone want success.

In the center of all of these competing desires and objectives is a class full of students. Some of them are learning. Some of them are struggling. All of them are filled with possibilities.

I sat down with one student after the testing was complete. His parent had decided that he would be taking his first Communion in a week. He had scored a 2 out of 26 on the first test. On a retake he did a little better. On any objective measure, he is not ready for this sacrament.

I asked, "What does Communion mean to you?"

His response, "This class? It's about God. and prayer. And having fun."

-- Great answer, but not anymore.