Assessing Redemptively

Evaluation, grading, and assessment are an integral part of our vocation as teachers. So much of what we do revolves around, or is influenced by, our assessment and evaluation practices. I that it makes sense for us to examine these practices in light of a Biblical view of teaching and learning.

In their book, A Vision with a Task: Christian Schooling for Responsive Discipleship (available here as a PDF document), Calvin College professors Gloria Stronks and Doug Blomberg offer five principles they believe should govern evaluation in a Christian context.[1] According to them, evaluation should:

  1. Enable learners to become more responsive in their learning (as images of God);
  2. Contribute to a Biblically sound development of knowledge. Evaluation should allow open-ended responses, encourage exploratory inquiry as well as explicit answers, and acknowledge different modes of learning that go beyond analytically knowing;
  3. Encourage student involvement in the classroom community, encouraging student learning — without judging student worth based on accomplishment;
  4. Reflect the learning that is deemed most important and help students develop their own learning gifts; and
  5. Communicate effectively to parents and students about student learning.

Stronks and Blomberg argue that student learning, not merely knowledge acquisition, should be at the root of all evaluation in the classroom. They recognize that learning encompasses more than just academic success (as defined by achieving a high score on an exam).

Similarly, in Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace & Truth into Your Classroom, Donovan Graham argues that simplified, objective grading tends to deny this reality: life is messy and complex, and learning is a process that is both dynamic and uncertain[2]. Rather than relying so heavily on externally-based assessments, Graham makes the case that a more Biblical approach to evaluation should emphasize the learning process. It should acknowledge that failure is a part of life and learning, but that God in His great mercy and grace provides us second (and third and fourth) chances: “His mercies are new every morning.” 

This is not to say that we abolish our standards. Without clear standards and objectives, neither we, nor our students, will know what it is that they are expected to learn. Mastery of skill and content learning objectives is an important part of the education process. The question is, how do we design assessments that will convey to our students what they know, where they still need to grow, and how they can close this gap — without the added burden of judging their worth based on their performance?

This is a discussion that is on-going in education circles, and not only by Christian educators. The latest edition of ASCD’s Education Update includes an interesting article that addresses the move towards standards-based grading. While the philosophical starting points are different, author Laura Varlas wrestles with many of the same issues raised above: how can educators rethink grading that “invites punitive measures that distort an accurate picture of what students know and are able to do”?[3] One practical suggestion Varlas offers is to rethink “penalties for late work, zeros, and points off for appearance” as these “can trade measures of learning for measures of compliance.” [4] Another is to assign homework no weight “except in its worth for practicing for the assessment,” substituting “giving feedback for homework instead of points.”[5] Both these suggestions resonate with assessment criteria given by Stronks and Blomberg. They exchange an emphasis of getting it right with one that focuses on the benefits of the learning process. And yet, making these changes is something that is much easier said than done. As Varlas points out, we must “be prepared to rethink everything” if we begin to rethink the role of assessment in our classrooms.

Reform of any sort can be a daunting task. Rather than making sweeping changes, let’s ask ourselves what small steps we can take to move in a redemptive direction with our use of assessments. I’d like to devote some time in future editions of OnPractice to exploring practical assessment/evaluation tools that engage the assessment ideas outlined by Stronks, Blomberg, and Graham. If you have experience with redemptive assessments and would be willing to write an article about what you’ve done—what worked, what didn’t—please contact us at onpractice@teachbeyond.org.

Becky Hunsberger

[1] These principles, found in chapter 8 of the book, are adapted from the writings of Harro van Brummelen.
[2] See the discussion on evaluation in chapter 24.
[3] Varlas, Laura.  “How We Got Grading Wrong, and What to Do About It.” Education Update.  Vol. 55, no. 10. ASCD.
Oct. 2013. pg 1.
[4] Ibid. pg 6.
[5] Ibid. pg 6.