Rethinking Assessments for Catechesis

Rethinking AssessmentsThe question was posed on last week’s blog asking “How do you know if your message is “understood, embraced, and lived”?” While writing the post it had crossed my mind that I was suggesting a new SMART Goal for the new year with no hint of “specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, or timely” metrics. William O’Leary called me on that, rightly so! I’ll make some assessment ideas for catechesis that will lead to measuring understanding and livability, but first it is interesting to review the recent history of instruction and assessments.

Traditional Catechetical Assessments

Measuring progress among our catechized is no new challenge. I remember the struggle between ministry heads and the finance council each year when it came time for budget approval. Inevitably the question was raised as to how many youth are in the program this year versus last, attempting to put a cost acquisition on each new student. Additionally, other ministries had to operate with no financial drain on the parish so why should education have such a high budget? Couldn’t faith formation be self-supporting as well?
We could certainly begin another discussion on the topic of the value of catechesis at the parish or diocesan level but the prior examples illustrate the need at some level to identify just how we measure growth of learners within our programs. Traditional catechetical instruction and assessment has gone through a cycle of changes. Here is a brief review.

Structured Question and Answer

Many are familiar with the approach used prior to Vatican II, the Baltimore Catechism. Strengths were that it was a teaching and assessment tool all in one. Students were taught the correct answer and they accepted the answers unquestioned. Critics of Q & A claim that rote memory may not lead to actual understanding of the content. There really wasn’t much of asking “why.” Additionally, students were not taught how to respond to circumstances in life that were not addressed in the question set. More challenging life questions would need the input from the parish priest.

Informal to Systematic Instruction and Assessment

During the decades following the Second Vatican Council much catechetical experimentation ensued. Driven by new attitudes inspired by Vatican II documents, changing attitudes toward society coupled with abandoning the old ways of the Baltimore Catechism opened the doors to what Fr. Robert J. Hater describes as “some of the most radical changes to the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation” (Common Sense Catechesis, p. 63). At the risk of oversimplifying, old ways were out, chaos led to experimentation, and catechizing the faithful suffered for 20-30 years. (Note: Fr. Hater has produced a remarkable picture of the periods of catechesis in the U.S. from the early 20th Century through now based on historical evidence and personal experience in his work mentioned above)
Eventually, solutions emerged. Due to a lack of standards for instruction or assessment, tools were developed in the 1980s to evaluate the “acceptability of various [religious] textbooks” (ibid, 143). New methods for catechizing were being developed and documents such as Evangelii Nuntiandi and Catechesi Tradendae offered clarification and direction. Ultimately, instruction and assessment began to shift from informal to systematic (ibid, 144).

More Recent Assessments

The last 20 years or so have seen an increase in more formal assessment in academia and within the Church. Of course, growth in attendance is still looked at as a sign of effectiveness in catechetical programs that do not require attendance such as youth ministry. But for the mainstream faith formation class common assessments include end of chapter tests and unit assessments. Some parishes may perform a beginning of year assessment and repeat the same at the end of year to compare growth. Other common forms of assessment, especially for sacrament preparation, are question and answer. Informal conversation/interviews effectively reveal a candidate’s understanding of and desire to receive a sacrament.

ACRE assessments (Assessment of Children/Youth Religious Education), sponsored by the NCEA, helps educators in Catholic schools and parishes assess how well their programs of religious education are doing in forming committed Christian disciples ( The challenge with formal assessments in the parish setting is no one wants to give children weak grades in faith formation.

Trends in Assessments

Current trends in assessment recognize the need to assess ongoing understanding of material as well as to assess mastery of skills or understanding. These are referred to as formative and summative assessments. These types of assessment in conjunction lead to greater student understanding of content. Formative assessments, when used properly, lead to identification of both material that is understood and material that needs further reflection. This information is fed-forward into instruction. For example, a concept is introduced and students have an activity on the topic. A formative assessment can be used to determine of there are gaps in understanding and if so, specific information may be repeated so that the student may learn before moving forward to the summative assessment. Summative assessments offer feed-back. By relying on summative assessments exclusively we miss the opportunity to help the students identify what they need to know!

Types of Assessment

Formative Assessment – assessments during the instructional process leading students toward the end goal – helping to form understanding
Summative Assessment – Final assessment covering content base – sum of understanding
PBL Assessment – Project Based Learning offers students the ability to demonstrate understanding of concepts by creating or solving problems
Performance Assessment – Students demonstrate mastery of content through the creation of authentic products and performances such as posters, poetry, song, skits
Self Assessment – Students reflect upon understanding of content and produce a written self-assessment identifying strengths and weaknesses of content mastery or implications of such – think self assessment for confirmation preparedness

Assessment Ideas for Catechesis

So we return to the proverbial question: “How do you know if your message is “understood, embraced, and lived”?” Ultimately, as many in ministry already know, we may never fully realize the impact our time with a student has had on him or her. However, there are many ways we may gain insight by attempting to measure progress in our students.

Before the Session

One thing I do is to flip catechesis. By flipping the lesson, I introduce the session topic or theme before the session even begins and immediately ask students what they understand and what questions they have. I take the results and adjust the content I teach in class according to their responses. (formative)

During the Session

During the session after discussing the content I will have the students play a content driven game and again observe understanding of content. It is typically easy to asses understanding and often reveals an area that needs review. (formative, project based)

After the Session

After the session I will typically review the chapter test questions out loud in game fashion. Students love to get the correct answers. Some catechists recommend “exit tickets” prior to leaving class. They will have students write something they have learned that they can take a give to their parents. (summative)

Living the Faith

Ultimately, we want students to not only understand the content but to understand the implications of living the Good News. Assessing understanding of how students think and live can be achieved by asking situational questions and listening to they responses. Some students will impress and others may need a few new ideas of how to think and live! (summative, self)

Your Turn

So, it’s your turn now. Are you getting the most from your students? Are you maximizing instruction by using a variety of assessments? Have you been using something that we need to know about? What can you contribute to this conversation?

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  1. Steve,
    Well written article on assessments. Thanks for the “big-picture” take of assessments.

    January 21, 2015
    • Thanks for your questions, William. Assessing our programs for effectiveness is an essential component. Blessings!

      January 24, 2015

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