Assessment—a sweeping, daunting term, describing any number of methods in the field of education. While the very word often unnerves students and faculty alike, the classical grammar school teacher balks not at the excessive triviality of more administrative red-tape but at the gravitas of a classical expectation for assessment. Assessment in the grammar school claims three tiers, echoing the division of the trivium. Classical educators at the poll-parrot stage primarily anticipate assessing their students by testing memorization, as Dorothy Sayers defends in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Students who have chanted information together in class demonstrate their mastery of each subject by reciting these “pegs” from memory. This, however, is only the beginning. Teachers following the classical model have set their expectations too low if they limit their grammar school assessment merely to mastery learning. A robust grammar school assessment not only includes a component of mastery (a grammar or poll-parrot skill), but also analytical application (an early dialectic skill) and imitation (a pre-rhetoric skill). To illustrate, consider the following description from a classroom at Mars Hill Academy.
Last week the third grade students performed their final graded recitation of “The Nightingale and the Glowworm” by William Cowper. Each one gave a word-perfect rendering of this eighteenth-century poem. The teacher’s objective: word-perfect memorization, and each student did indeed achieve 100%. Later that day, the same class took a grammar quiz in which they analyzed and diagrammed a number of sentences. This time the students hardly demonstrated perfection. As the teacher expected, the students wrestled with the grammar concept in a new context. Most performed in the 90% range. The teacher was quite pleased. That afternoon, in history, these students rewrote the Roman legend of “Horatius at the Bridge.” They were instructed to work through each paragraph, imitating – but not copying – the tale. The teacher checked the students’ work for proper indentation, capital letters, and punctuation as well as how well they captured the “voice” of the legend.
As demonstrated in the classroom snap- shot above, grammar school assessment includes all three aspects of the trivium, beginning on the grammar level. Because both dialectic and rhetoric work depend upon the “building blocks” laid in the memorization of the grammar stage, the teacher ought to expect some element of identical replication from each student. To test by memorization successfully, the teacher must both review with the students and frame that information in a context sympathetic to memorization. Whether with pneumonic devices, meter, or song, teachers help their students to memorize by reviewing facts and figures in the same order. When tested, whether with history chants, science statements, poetry recitations, or math facts, each student will be able to provide three key events of 1453 or the alkaline metals most readily in the rehearsed order. Such consistent repetition helps the student retain the information and encourages the teacher to expect word-perfect mastery around the classroom.
The dialectic or analytical aspect of assessment appears in grammar school when students apply a skill demonstrated in class on their own. Unlike testing memorization, the teacher assesses the students’ grasp of the material by significantly changing the context surrounding the new skill. For example, a quiz on adverbial elements will contain not only new sentences but also a new arrangement of the adverbs which the students have not encountered: some adverbs will appear at the beginning rather than the end of the sentence, and some will appear as phrases. Here the student applies John Milton Gregory’s “law
of the lesson” himself, working with a known skill through unknown material. Because the grammar school student is just beginning to explore this dialectic task, the teacher does not expect mastery. Rather, the teacher is looking for the students’ engagement with the material – for one, as Theodore Roosevelt described, “in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” The teacher expects mistakes; the teacher corrects the mistakes and applauds the diligent, if often errant, effort. A solid performance evidences that the student can apply the skill with 85% accuracy. The same expectation applies to the class’s average grade. In grading the application of a skill, however, the teacher is not primarily concerned with taking away points for mistakes (though he will). The teacher’s interest lies in encouraging those who attempt to create their own contexts to apply their new skill.
A pre-rhetoric component appears most readily in grammar school assessment in the practice of composition. When students begin to imitate the masters in writing, they primarily practice piecing ideas together – not parroting information or analyzing thought. Teachers may require students to replicate a folk tale or a legend at this age. Grammar students need not worry about developing a new story line but should work within the framework of the existing one. Because the classical Greek progymnasmata exercises of writing a fable or a narrative are multi-faceted, they prove difficult to analyze on a rigorous standard. For this reason, grammar school teachers exercising this rhetorical skill may use a rubric scale which assesses several areas to arrive at a final grade, including grammatical (e.g., mechanics, punctuation, and spelling) and rhetorical (e.g., sentence structure and language usage) elements. Teachers allot a set percentage to each area of assessment to determine a grade.
Assessment that follows the three disciplines of the trivium records a student’s understanding of the material in a lesson at the level of memory, in the application of a skill, and in imitation. While the elements of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric together frame a classical teacher’s methods of assessment, each grade level employs a different degree. At the second and third grade level, the grammatical memory still proves dominant; students only just begin to practice dialectic application and toy with rhetorical imitation. Meanwhile, by fifth and sixth grade, just on the cusp of the dialectic stage, students exercise their memorization with longer application and more imitation. Weights for grading memory quizzes, analytical worksheets, and composition pieces change accordingly, as does the amount of time the teacher spends in the classroom working on such skills.
Assessment at the grammar school level, therefore, becomes the seamless preparation for rhetoric school assessment. At Mars Hill Academy, grammar school teachers consider all their students as future rhetoric students. When final exams and thesis projects take the stage instead of the way we normally speak it. The one area where the classical curriculum does not seem to have as positive an effect is in mathematics. Our scores on the Math section of the PSAT are still much higher than the national average, but they aren’t as high as the Critical Reading and Writing sections. This does not mean we aren’t teaching math well; on the contrary, I think our school has an outstanding math program. Math, however, may be a subject that is more difficult for many students to master. We are bombarded with language from the moment we are born. Math, on the other hand, can often seem abstract and detached from everyday life, especially at the high school level and beyond. While it is still our task to help each child maximize his or her abilities—and the classical curriculum is definitely the best way to do that—we must recognize that some of those abilities will have more variation than others.
I end on a cautionary note: The PSAT is given only once a year and must be taken on one specific day. It is not a measure, ultimately, of a student’s intelligence or a school’s success or failure. It is just one test. We should use the information from the PSAT as only one of many means of evaluating what we do—not so we can say we are “better” than other schools, but to reach that goal of guiding our students to become the persons God would have them be.