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Classical Christian
Classical Education
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Christine Miller

Classical Christian
Homeschooling FAQ:
Testing and Classical Homeschooling

This page last revised:
April 2003


Testing and Classical Homeschooling

Christine Miller

Institutionalized Testing

Classical Christian Homeschooling provides a different type of education than most public, or even private, schools. CCH does not rely on workbooks and text books so much, but on real books, on “living” books. Testing out of workbooks and text books seems familiar: the main points are evident in a workbook and text book, and multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank type tests provide a simple percentage of right answers which can go in a grade book as A, B, C, D, or F. Let us look at the process a student might go through when faced with a multiple-choice question, courtesy of Jacques Barzun:

Now let us consider a multiple-choice question that taps only our spacious ignorance. The statement reads: “The first man who drew down lightning from the clouds and showed it to be electricity was: (a) Patrick Henry; (b) Thomas A. Edison; (c) Benjamin Franklin; (d) Button Gwinnett.” We have no idea--but we quickly reject Patrick Henry because we remember that all he ever did was to say “Give me liberty or give me death.” Edison sounds plausible. Electrical power today often comes from an Edison company--but no, Edison is the lightbulb man, and that’s not as far back as when electricity was first fiddled with. Edison is out. As for Button Gwinnett, who has ever heard of him? He doesn’t sound real--nobody was ever named Button. So it’s Franklin: the right answer, but by default, not knowledge. The student who has wormed his way to Franklin in this fashion is clever, no doubt. But the test is not meant to reward cleverness; it is to find out who knows what.

Jacques Barzun
What is a School?, published by the Hudson Institute

There is a better way.

Knowledge and Examinations

Instead of testing ignorance, which is so often what institutionalized, multiple-choice testing does, Jacques Barzun makes the case for a return to the traditional (or classical) system of examination as an accurate gauge of knowledge as well as of thought:

Instead of check marks in a box, students’ responses to essay questions show the teacher what each has learned and the student what he has forgotten. The multiple-choice test does neither. Instead, what it does is positive harm, because the so-called objective question does not call for knowledge: it calls for single-fact recognition. ... Those [answers on the multiple-choice test] seem familiar; you have recognized them but you could not summon them up. You did not know them. Knowing means the power to recall without any hints.

... Nor is this all. Multiple-choice tests give the student a false idea of what knowledge is. They reduce it to bits of scattered information. Genuine knowledge consists of clusters of facts, and their relations, and their significance. It is this patterning that the mind needs to retain the whole; it is the answer to the question the astute Bil Keane puts into a child’s mouth: “How can I remember everything I know?”

... Knowledge is properly tested through carefully framed questions which, by referring to a statement of fact in a sentence or two, direct the student’s thought to the further facts that he is to provide.

Jacques Barzun
What is a School?, published by the Hudson Institute

The examination probes knowledge, “facts and their relations and their significance,” rather than isolated bits of recognicances. This definition of knowledge proposed by Jacques Barzun, one of the most accomplished teachers and philosophers of the twentieth century, is striking. “Knowledge: facts and their relations and their significance” (emphasis mine). Once again, as if by chance, we see the three laws of learning, the three-fold way, the trivium, spelled out. We can see how each level is built onto the foundation of the level which comes before it. The grammar stage examines facts; the dialectic stage examines facts and their relations; and the rhetoric stage examines facts and their relations and their significance.

Grammar Stage Examinations

The focus of the examination in the grammar stage is knowledge of facts, no matter of what subject studied. And the memorization of facts is a key component of the grammar stage. Thus, the first part of the grammar stage examination would see whether the appropriate body of facts have in fact been memorized. Can the child recall what he knows without the aid of hints?

The idea of “testing” can contaminate our thinking here; so let us try to look at memorization and examination outside the box. A child who reads more and more fluently has memorized, internalized, the phonograms; a child who repeats his Latin grammar paradigms without error or who correctly translates vocabulary has memorized or internalized his Latin lessons. A child who correctly works his arithmetic computations within a reasonable amount of time has internalized his math facts. A child who can answer the half-dozen daily drill questions in any subject has memorized those facts. The parent can see for herself day by day whether this is happening or not. A formal, written test will not cause a child who has not memorized or internalized something to suddenly internalize it; so if the daily drill or weekly games show that the child is weak in his memorization, the solution would be to provide more opportunites for consistent oral drill and recitation until he has internalized it.

Another tool which can be used in the grammar stage to examine whether a child has memorized his facts is regular oral recitations. Oral recications can include singing songs learned, which would constitute a music examination, or reciting poetry committed to memory, which would constitute a literature examination, or reciting Scripture, a Bible examination. Oral recitations can be planned for the past month’s science or geography lessons. Let’s say in the past month in science, the children were learning to recognize and name different local bird species. The parent could either show a photo and request its common and scientific name, or describe the defining characteristic and request its common and scientific name, or state the common name (or scientific name) and request the child to point out its photo or provide its defining characteristic and its scientific (or common) name. The same process can be used with geography: point out a place on a map and require its name, or provide a name (Spain), and require the child to point it out on a map and state its capital (Madrid) and one major physical feature (Rock of Gibraltar).

A final examination tool for the grammar stage which works exceptionally well with real books read for literature or history is narration. Narration recognizes that children of this stage are naturally wired to retell. Take them to a movie, and then try to stop them from talking about their favorite parts on the car ride home. :-) Every day when they have finished their reading, they should retell what they remember from it; and when they finish a book, they can retell, or summarize, what the book was about -- what happened, who did it, how was the crisis resolved, what was your favorite part. Take your child on your lap with the book, and snuggle together, and ask questions and listen to her answers, and ask more questions to get her talking about some details you think important which she might have forgotten to mention. She should not be doing character analysis and plot charting and vocabulary exercises and so on which kills the joy of a good story for a grammar-stage child; the examination (narration) should satisfy the parent that the child has in fact read the book, and has in fact understood what was going on in the story. That’s it. That’s the appropriate level of work for this stage. The child does not even have to know she is being “tested.” Older children, 5th and 6th grade, can do written narrations if they like, but the idea is the same: retell, only in writing, rather than orally.

Appropriate facts to be memorized, and drilled and examined either by logical extension (the child who reads fluently has memorized English phonograms), oral recitation, or oral or written narration, might include:

English Grammar: phonograms, phonic spelling rules, parts of speech, vocabulary and definitions, roots, prefixes, suffixes, correct usage, correct sentence diagramming;
Latin or Greek: phonograms, paradigms, vocabulary;
Writing: letter forms; writing mechanics, spelling;
Arithmetic: numeral forms, numeral names, counting by one’s, two’s, three’s, etc., place, math facts for four operations; measures; common conversions;
History: general chronology (that Egypt thrived before Greece, Greece before Rome, etc.), 100 pivotal dates of Western Civilization, events, persons and places associated with those events;
Literature: memorize poetry, retell the basic plot of standard fables, fairy tales, myths, or culturally significant stories (Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, etc.) from each year’s literature curriculum.

How would such informal examinations be graded? Remember, we are talking about elementary age children here. If the child demonstrates he has knowledge (recall without hints) of the facts by one of the above methods, then he has learned what you have spent time to teach him. His learning was successful, your teaching was successful. The child ought to receive the highest grade possible.

Dialectic Stage Examinations

The focus of the examination in the dialectic stage is knowledge of facts and their relations, no matter of what subject studied. Since most of us did not learn and were not educated classically, it might be helpful to understand what fact relations look like.

In the grammar stage, children learned that Protestants and Catholics alike were persecuted in Europe during the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. They also learned that William Bradford and a group of English Separatists left England for Holland, then Holland for America, establishing Plymouth Plantation in 1620. In the dialectic stage, they learn how these facts are related. They learn that because of persecution, the Separatists left England for Holland, where more religious toleration was practiced. They learn that because so much was tolerated in Holland, and their children were becoming more Dutch in their culture than English, the Separatists made the dangerous journey to the New World to establish a distinctive Christian community. Dialectic stage children explore and discuss the relationships among the facts they learned in the grammar stage.

Thus dialectic stage examinations must test a student’s knowledge of both facts and relationships. More on examinations from Jacques Barzun will provide a clue:

“Knowledge is properly tested through carefully framed questions which, by referring to a statement of fact in a sentence or two, direct the student’s thought to the further facts that he is to provide. After the exam, the teacher will read some of the answers as particularly good and discuss the difficulties in the question the class found hardest. Examining is thus a part of teaching, as “objective” testing is not. Of course, for a short quiz to see whether an assignment has been [completed], six or eight true-false or multiple-choice questions are convenient and harmless.

“As for grading ... what then is to be done? Some measure of performance is needed that will permit comparisons over time and space. The answer is suggested by the word performance: the student must perform an act of sustained thinking, which rules out the check-mark system of tapping a layer of scattered items. ... Answers of this kind can only be graded by a person -- another mind -- hence teachers ... must read a number of papers. ... A notable advantage of this system is that the quality of the student’s work receives attention and credit, instead of the quantity of indifferent, fungible data. For example, the student who clearly knows all the steps for solving a[n algebra] problem but has made a mistake in the last line when copying a number does not get a zero for “wrong answer” but partial credit for what he does know.”

How does one test a student’s act of sustained thinking? During regular school days, students ought to be given plenty of practice in sustained thinking, and encouraged and corrected in sustained thinking through discussions with the teacher or other students. In this atmosphere, a student gains practice in expressing a thought orally using logical principles. Dad can play a prominent role around the dinner table by discussing the day’s school lessons, asking questions, challenging assumptions, and requiring coherent and logical explanations and summaries. The student’s writing lessons teach him to do the same on paper. Throughout he is analyzing and exploring the relationships among facts learned and encountered in the subject material.

Once a month, or once per six-week block, or at the end of logical breaks in the subject matter (upon completion of chapters or units) students can be tested via formal examination. In the dialectic stage, for most subject matter, this examination comes in the form of the essay question. The essay question exam asks questions “carefully framed” to which a student must supply a short essay -- a well-written paragraph in the dialectic stage -- in order to answer. The essay answers ought to first of all utilize proper sentence structure, grammar, and spelling, as well as the principles learned in writing class -- coherence, unity, logical order, as well as valid use of the principles of logic -- so every essay exam also tests English as well as the subject matter of the exam.

The teacher ought to have in mind specific points for the essay exam, for which he will be looking in the written answers. Keep the list of points brief for each essay exam. Appropriate relationships among facts to be discussed and subsequently tested via written essay answers might include:

Logic: valid use of logical principles, avoidance of logical fallacies in essay answers on any topic;
Latin or Greek: correct translations and explanation (defense) of translation choices;
Writing: proper use of grammar, mechanics, unity, coherence, and other written essay principles in essay answers on any topic;
History: explanations of relationships among adjacent historical events, persons, and (or) places encountered in the study, or explanation of the relationships among a single historical event, its major persons, and its place;
Literature: a passage is given from the literature recently studied; explanations on its meaning or its relationship to its place in its history or culture provided in response to the essay questions.

Algebra and Geometry examinations are a unique case. In response to a problem on the examination, the student works the problem line by line without skipping a step. This allows the teacher to follow the student’s sustained thinking as he works out the mathematics. If the student gets a final answer wrong because he miscopied a number at some point in the solution, the teacher can clearly see this, and give the appropriate amount of credit to the student for knowing how to find the solution and so on.

Many good curricula for the dialectic and rhetoric stages provide questions or issues for discussion. Some of these may be saved to use in examinations, or variations on them may be used for the dialectic stage examinations.

Rhetoric Stage Examinations

The focus of the examination in the rhetoric stage is knowledge of facts, relations, and the significance of those facts and their relations, no matter of what subject studied. Since most of us did not learn and were not educated classically, it might be helpful to understand what significance looks like.

Let us take up again our example from American history, the establishment of Plymouth Plantation in 1620 by English Separatists. What is the significance of this event? We want to explore the total significance, not only the historical significance, so we discuss the ramifications on science, philosophy, theology, politics and government, even literature, as well as the impact of science, philosophy, theology, etc. on that event as well. Some thoughts on this might include the role the character and the theology of the Separatists played in making their establishment successful in unarguably hostile conditions; how the distinctive makeup of the Separatists as a group influenced the character of the American resistance to British autocracy; and how the character of the Separatists came to be worked into the national character of America that we see today. There are lots of other threads that could be pursued as well.

Discussing topics like this might be intimidating to homeschool parents who want to know what the right answer is. Well, at this stage, it’s not so much a matter of right answers as it is the process of exploring the question, of discussing the possibilities, drawing on knowledge from other topics studied and ideas from a combination of books read. This involves what Mortimer Adler calls syntopical reading (and thinking): reading many books and drawing on their major themes to formulate a unique theory. Similarly this involves what I have called abstract thinking, the hallmark of the rhetoric stage: recognizing various threads going through various subjects and making the connections between them to come to unique conclusions.

Before we as parents become intimidated, consider that as adults, we practice syntopical, abstract thinking every day without realizing it or even thinking about it. If your child ever asks you what is meant by some statement on the evening news, and you explain it in broader terms than the news has explained it in their soundbite, then you have just drawn on multiple sources of knowledge to make connections and draw conclusions. Abstract thinking is the natural next step as a rhetoric stage child’s thinking matures. Any parent who feels unable to lead their child in a discussion on the significance of the facts can ask the Lord to help them. I cannot recount the many times I felt “stuck” when leading the children in their studies, and after a quick “Help!” prayer, inspiration would hit and I was able to continue the discussion with success. The Lord certainly understands the significance of any fact; remember that “you have not because you ask not.”

The rhetoric stage examination, then, takes the rhetoric stage oral discussion of the significance of some fact to the next level and simply requires a well-written one or two-page written paper on the topic. The details of the exam are similar to those discussed in the dialectic stage. The difference between them is the depth of sustained thinking required of the student: that of explaining how facts are related in the dialectic stage, to that of explaining the relationships and significance of those facts in the rhetoric stage; and also the length and depth of the written explanation: that of a well-written paragraph to a single page of several paragraphs in the dialectic stage, to that of a well-written paper, from one page to a few pages, in the rhetoric stage.

In a student’s senior year, the concept of the rhetoric stage examination goes a step further. He ought to write two research papers that year, one due at the end of the first semester, and one due at the end of the second semester. The number of two research papers required has been carefully chosen. Lessons learned in the process of writing the first paper can then be applied to the process of writing the second paper, providing adequate preparation for college-level papers.

And finally, the senior’s final examination which shows he has earned his diploma ought to be carefully structured. I believe the student ought to have a final written examination, and a final oral examination. The final written examination explores the knowledge learned throughout his previous twelve years of school, with answers provided in essay form; one week can be set aside for the examination. One day could be devoted to math (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and higher mathematics or business mathematics), one to English (grammar, logic, and rhetoric principles), one to Latin and Greek, one to Western culture (history, literature, science, philosophy, etc.) and one to Scripture (Bible knowledge, evidences, theology, and apologetics). A second week can be devoted to the final oral examination. There is no right or wrong way to conduct these examinations, we are recovering something we have lost after all; but the final oral examination can test the student’s memory and retention of what has been learned, so recitation could be a part of it; also a portion of the oral exam can be logical debate, with the examiner-parent as the devil’s advocate; and also a portion of the oral exam can be oratory using the principles of rhetoric on whatever topic the parent questions the student on; as well as a student-prepared final speech on an assigned topic.

Important Links:

What is a School? by Jacques Barzun
Scroll down to use link to request a copy of the booklet

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler

Taking the Essay Exam
The verbs and definitions are helpful for framing essay questions

Writing Essay Exams

Prepare for and Write an Essay Exam

The Lost Art of Research Paper Writing

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