Assessment that Comforts

I am about to depart for a retreat (the Alcuin Retreat led by the Alcuin Fellowship) during which several educators will be considering the topic of assessment. What should assessment look like for those of us homeschooling our children?

You likely know that in education today, the word “assessment” connotes standardized tests, multiple-choice tests, ABCDF, the 100-point scale, red ink, and a good deal of stress, worry, frustration, pride, and despair.

Granted, whenever someone with authority (and presumably expertise) tells you how you are doing at a task or skill, it can be stressful. But what if assessment could be a means of blessing? My friend Andrew Kern was the first (that I know of) to say that assessment in the classical Christian tradition should bless the student. I would add that it should also comfort the student. How can this be?

Assessing a student can bless and comfort because it is meant to help a child do what he longs to do—to understand an idea, perform a skill, or know a fact. When we assess, we do so not to assign a rank but to help a student grow, learn, and improve. We seek to help a student resolve misunderstanding and error, to set him on the right path—which is the root meaning of the word “correct” (from corrigere, “to make straight,” and rectus, “straight”).

The word “assess” itself has a revealing etymology. It is from the Latin verb adsideo, adsidere, adsedi, assessum. This word can mean “to sit near,” “to sit beside,” “to give comfort or advice.” Figuratively speaking, it can also mean “to devote oneself to.” Now, this word was used in Latin when one would be called up to sit next to a judge, so there were some Roman “assessments” that would have been quite stressful. But note that the word first means simply to sit next to or beside someone. What if we viewed assessment as primarily a matter of sitting down next to our child to have a meaningful conversation about his learning? What if we sat down next to our child and did some of our work along with her, without even saying a word? Just truly being with our child is a meaningful form of assessment. Being with her, we can see firsthand how she is doing and quickly learn how to best guide and encourage.

What is more, the Latin word suggests that assessment could be in the form of comfort and advice. Do our assessments comfort? I cannot resist mentioning that comfort is related to the Latin word fortis, which means “strength.” Does our assessing strengthen our children? Does it impart greater virtue and strength of skill and understanding?

Certainly, we can use worksheets, give exercises, and assign essays and papers, and yes, even tests and quizzes. But the larger idea of “assessment” includes devoting ourselves to our children to strengthen them, correct them, and guide them. This means being with them, being next to them.

Recently, I have been spending time with my son at college (which is local) studying and writing alongside him at the library in a study room. He is almost 21 years old now, and needs little academic guidance from me, but he appreciates the old form of assessment—the strengthening and comfort that comes from merely being together, side by side. Why do this? We are devoted to one another. Sometimes, I confess, he assesses me.

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