Teachers, trustees fight standardized religion test

  • April 17, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - If you want to meet the standard for Grade 4 religion in Toronto’s Catholic schools you had better know the other name for Candlemas.

“Another word for Candlemas Day is the Feast of ______” is one question on a standardized Grade 4 religion test that will be administered in about half the Catholic schools in Toronto in May. The test isn’t being written by all Toronto fourth graders because some trustees objected to the test so vigorously that they passed an opt-out clause for their wards.

It isn’t just trustees who object to the test. Teachers also object to standardized tests imposed on them from above, whether they be religion tests or the provincial literacy and numeracy tests kids come up against in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10.

“Our position on standardized tests, no matter what the subject area, is pretty clear actually,” said Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president Elaine MacNeil.

Tests don’t measure progress over time, don’t measure a child’s ability to learn or cope with new situations and don’t measure social abilities such as co-operation and leadership which are key to continued learning, MacNeil said.

“It measures information rather than attitudes or learning skills,” she said.

A return to mindless, rote recitation of formulas along the lines of the Baltimore Catechism which dominated Catholic schools before the Second Vatican Council will not help children integrate their faith into their lives, said MacNeil.

She argued that teachers in their own classrooms are in a better position to evaluate students.

But that’s exactly the problem, said school board chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller.

“(The test is) a response in part to the Harris government taking away from Catholic schools, about 10 years ago, the right to assign a grade to elementary students in religion when they introduced a province-wide report card,” LeBlanc-Miller said.

Not being able to assign a grade to students in religion class reduces it to a mere activity, and schools ought to be able to assign it the same importance as any other subject on the curriculum, argued the board chair.

No child will pass or fail on the basis of the test results. The test is meant to measure how well religion is being taught, said LeBlanc-Miller.

“We’re testing to see if the teaching methods and the tools we’re using, including the curriculum, are effective,” she said.

The test was developed by board staff based on review questions in the text book. It will cost the board about $12,000 to administer and mark the exams.

Though it may be tempting to dismiss rote memory work, it has always played a significant role in Christian pedagogy, said Scott Nicholson, academic dean at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry’s Bay, Ont.

“Memory develops before analytical ability. Having people memorize at an early age takes advantage of that — so that when they get older they have something to analyse,” he said.

Memorizing passages of Scripture has been part of the tradition of all the Abrahamic faiths, and is still practised by Jews and Muslims, Nicholson said.

“Fathers and doctors of the church emphasized that memorization of the Bible is a very important thing,” he said.

The other name for Candlemas is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It falls on Feb. 2.

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