Measuring is Listening: Assessment as a Critical Ministry Tool

Written by Dr. Josh Packard, Executive Vice President of Strategy and Operations, NCEA, [email protected] and John Galvan, Vice President of Assessments, NCEA, [email protected]

The metrics we choose to assess our progress in religious education and formation often dictate the path we tread. This is particularly relevant in today’s religious landscape, where formative religious assessment is not just a methodological choice, but a profound act of listening.  

Formative religious assessment is akin to a compass in a traveler’s hand. It involves continuous monitoring and feedback, allowing for real-time adjustments and deeper engagement with the material. This approach is not merely about measuring knowledge; it’s about understanding how beliefs are formed, internalized and lived out. By integrating formative assessments, religious educators can listen attentively to the evolving spiritual narratives of younger generations, respecting their individual paths while guiding them toward deeper understanding and commitment. 

The argument for formative assessment over summative is supported by educational research for learning outcomes and echoed in religious education, where the journey of faith is often nonlinear and deeply personal. This is especially true among Generations Z and Alpha where the process is as vital as the outcome. Summative assessments, while useful in evaluating end-point knowledge, often fail to capture the nuanced process of faith development, the struggles, questions and moments of insight that characterize spiritual growth. 

Incorporating formative assessments in religious education is, therefore, an act of listening—to the shifting beliefs, the doubts and the affirmations of the younger faithful. It respects the individuality of each spiritual journey, acknowledging that the path to understanding and belief is as important as the knowledge itself. As such, religious educators and ministers are called to adopt a holistic approach, one that values the journey and the destination alike, nurturing a deeper, more authentic engagement with faith. 

By shifting our focus from solely outcomes to also include processes, we demonstrate a commitment to the entire spectrum of religious education. It signals to the younger generations that their journey, with all its meanderings and milestones, is valued and essential to their spiritual development. In essence, to listen through formative assessment is to honor the sacred narrative of each individual, guiding them not just to a destination of religious knowledge, but to a lifelong journey of faith and understanding. 

An ideal formative religious assessment should measure both the “head” knowledge and the “hands and heart” knowledge of our Catholic faith—the destination and the journey. NCEA’s Assessment of Catholic Religious Education (ACRE) for students is a formative and cumulative assessment that helps adults on campus understand what students know, think about, feel and practice regarding the Catholic faith. It is a sacred listening tool intended to inform understanding of the Catechism (what we believe) and our processes for catechesis (how we teach what we believe). What does the data tell us about how our students are doing? The story behind the numbers is an opportunity to listen and engage our students more deeply in matters of faith. The definitive aim is for each to have a transformative encounter with the Living God through the person of Jesus Christ. He is the destination, and we are blessed to share the journey together with the next generation of believers.