Diocese uses assessment tool to help students grow in faith

ACRE gives snapshot of where students are in faith journey

ALLOUEZ — Most people who are parents today — or even grandparents — remember taking Iowa Basic Tests. From them, parents and teachers learned how well students were learning math, science, reading, vocabulary and other language skills. The goal of the tests — now called “Iowa Assessments’ — is still to help schools “measure achievement and monitor student growth” to make certain that their programs are doing a good job at preparing children for adult life.

Chart compares national and diocesan composite scores, grades 5, 8 and 11. (Rachel Cunningham | The Compass)

There is a similar tool available in the Green Bay Diocese that helps Catholic schools and parish religious education programs see how well they are preparing children for life as disciples of Christ. It’s called ACRE (Assessment of Catholic Religious Education).

Developed by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), ACRE is administered to students in grades 5, 8 and 11 in both Catholic schools and in parish religious education programs. ACRE is not a test — there’s no “100 percent” or “A+” to be earned. Instead, ACRE is meant to give a snapshot of where groups of students are in their faith journey in the areas such as teachings of the faith, the liturgy, morality, prayer life, sacraments, community life and in missionary spirit.

“It’s not meant to be a test for the students, but an assessment to know how effective our Catholic schools and religious education programs are in making disciples who know and live their faith,” explained Franciscan Sr. Jackie Spaniola, diocesan assistant director of religious education and youth ministry.

Since 2012, Bishop David Ricken has mandated that all schools and parishes in the Green Bay Diocese utilize ACRE to help them assess and improve their religion programs. The bishop calls this assessment “an ongoing process for renewal.”

ACRE is given each March in all 57 Catholic schools and 134 religious education programs in parishes. Again, ACRE is not a “test” for students, but an evaluation tool for teachers and administrators.

“Some might think this is just about factual things,” Sr. Jackie said, “but it’s not just factual; it helps them assess how they are doing with living discipleship, on a day-to-day level.”

Bishop Ricken (see his column on page 2) has stressed that he wants schools and religious education programs to have a consistent way of looking at where they are now in the mission of preparing the disciples of the future.

“(ACRE) does give us valuable information as to where students are growing in their relationship with Christ,” the bishop noted, “what can be improved in a parish or school, what could be clarified about Jesus, and how to continue to grow in relationship with him as disciples.”

When schools and religious education programs study their ACRE results, it helps them know where to go in the future — what to emphasize and what they might not be explaining as well as they could.

“ACRE puts more of a focus on striving for the best quality instruction,” said Barb Zipperer, who ministers at St. Isidore the Farmer, Tisch Mills. “We share the results with our teachers and discuss the three lowest scoring questions as to how to improve the topic in a more memorable way. We also give our priest the questions from the three lowest from each level so that, if he chooses, he can put a special emphasis on them during his homilies.”

At St. Louis Parish in Dyckesville, ACRE assessments told Kathy Cornette, Jean Stein and Kathy Prevost that their religious education students were weak in faith vocabulary.

“This year, we have implemented vocabulary words in each lesson that we believe have affected weak areas,” said Cornette. The school also developed a Jeopardy-style game to use in assemblies to help grow in understanding the faith-related terms used in the test. For example, one answer is: “the Incarnation.” The right question a student needs to pose it: “What is ‘coming in the flesh’?”

Six areas of religious life and teachings of faith are covered by the ACRE assessment: The Creed; Sacraments and Liturgy; Morality; Prayer; Community Life; Missionary Life.

The first four areas come under what is called “the four pillars of faith” and are more fact-based. The last two areas on the assessment fall under the areas of discipleship and evangelization, and explore more about students’ lived experiences of faith.

So there are obvious areas covered — knowledge of particular sacraments, parts of the Mass and people and events in the Bible — as well as not so obvious areas such as attitudes toward bullying, racism or pro-life issues as well as personal development in the areas of reaching out to others and living the faith in families and friendships.

Through ACRE “we can find our strengths and our weaknesses to improve our programs and our schools,” Sr. Jackie explained.

Peter Weiss, a theology teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, especially noted how the affective (second part) portion of the ACRE assessment “helped us better understand where our students are. We have a significant portion of our students who are non-Catholic. This data helps us to serve all students better by meeting them where they are.”

ACRE results are digitized, so schools and parishes can learn their group results quickly, almost instantaneously. Teachers do not receive reports on individual students, just composites of their classes. This helps them, both in making adjustments to programs during the remainder of the year, and in planning for religious education programs in the fall.

Sr. Jackie said that the ACRE results help schools and classes discover areas where they might need more emphasis.

Amy Koehler, coordinator of Faith Formation and Youth Ministry at St. John the Baptist, Howard, agrees. “The ACRE assessment helps us to see the areas where our religious education program is weaker and stronger. We also can see how the young people feel about our volunteers and parish. For example, we know the young people feel that the catechists care about them.”

Sally Michalkiewicz of St. Mary/St. John parishes in Menasha said their faith formation program is looking forward to the next ACRE report. “We hope to see the scores have improved from what they were last year,” she said. “We realize it could take a few years for that to happen, but we are hopeful.”

Michalkiewicz added that, after their last assessments, the program decided to add eucharistic adoration for the middle and high school students. Additionally, “each class has prayer before and after class and now has added group prayer in our cafeteria,” she said, adding that they have a meal for class each week. “Not only does it help with prayer forms (but) the youth have really shown a lot of growth with their personal development in discipleship and relationships with Jesus.”

Assessment tools have been used for years in the Diocese of Green Bay, dating back to at least the 1980s. But assessment tools are refined regularly and the current ACRE program was redone in 2013.

What ACRE has revealed so far (see chart above for overall diocesan averages) is that the diocese compares well to other dioceses. In many areas, students here have knowledge above national averages. In a few areas, such as knowledge of the Creed or sacraments, especially in the younger grades, students here rank slightly below national averages.

“With society the way it is,” Sr. Jackie explained, “we need to help the children know how they can explain their faith — and first they have to know it — so they know why we’re living it this way.”

The bottom line, according to Maria Schuette, diocesan director of religious education and youth ministry, is that ACRE “helps everyone grow as disciples. … We are not looking for a perfect score, but going deeper as you grow deeper in love with Jesus.”