INDIANAPOLIS — A new diocesan program is holding Catholic schools and directors of religious education accountable for what they are teaching students about their faith.
It's called Faith 2000, a multiple-choice test mandated for all Catholic school and parish religious-education students by Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein. The test is aimed at identifying areas that students in grades three, six, eight and 10 don't grasp about their Catholic faith. Teachers then adjust their curricula based on the four pillars of the Catechism: creed, sacraments, prayer and faith.
If Jaret Binford, 14, is any indication, it seems to be working.
He recently took the Faith 2000 test for his eighth-grade religious class at Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church in Greenwood, Ind.
“There are so many questions on the faith,” the youth noted. “Our faith needs strengthening and this makes us reflect on what our faith is about.”
He said the test shows him that the Church is serious about teaching his generation about their faith. “I want to know why so many people put such great faith in … God,” the teen said.
Binford's father, Jim, said the test is helping him learn new things about the faith.
“I'm glad to see there is more explanation,” Binford said. “It's helping me understand it a lot more. I learn from him and that's a good thing.”
The test asks questions such as “What is virtue?” or “What is the central act of worship for Catholics?” It also tests religious attitudes and practices, its administrators say.
Archbishop Buechlein, the chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee that is responsible for squaring all religious textbooks with the Catechism, said that it is very specific because Catholic identity in young people is at issue.
“There has to be an intellectual context of understanding what we believe,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “If we don't know what we believe we are in deep trouble. We have a whole generation that felt they were shortchanged in their religion. We need to do a better job of presenting content, not methodology, to our students.”
Indeed, Father Joe Brown, who teaches religion to students at Chatard High School in Indianapolis, knows his students don't grasp certain concepts. Father Brown has high school students who don't know what the act of contrition is, much less how to say it.
“They just don't know what the Church is about in general,” Father Brown said.
Archbishop Buechlein's test aims to change that by showing teachers where student knowledge is weak.
The idea is different because it “puts more meat” into the programs, said Judy Koch, the director of religious education at Our Lady of the Green-wood.
Koch said that after the Second Vatican Council, students weren't taught the basics. She calls her religious education book one of the most traditional in the diocese because it doesn't “whitewash anything.”
“It talks about basic things like sin and real traditions of being a Catholic like Benediction, adoration, the saints, rosary,” Koch said. “The pendulum is swinging back. We had a whole generation who were just taught to love everyone and be a nice guy.”
The move to Faith 2000 means a more centralized curriculum. That's because the test is used for accountability, but not as a way to compare schools to one another, said Sister Michelle Faltus, director of curriculum assessment for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
“It's great,” she said. “It really shows if we are teaching the basics of the Catholic faith.”
Results aren't released; instead the archdiocese identifies weak areas, and schools are then required to implement changes in the curriculum to teach the Catechism, she said.
Janis Dopp, the director of religious education at St. Charles Catholic Church in Bloomington, Ind., said redefining the curriculum in terms of the Catechism has met some opposition.
“I know that the criticism I've heard of the test is that people are reluctant to switch over what they are doing and there is a general reluctance,” she said. “You have teachers who have been teaching a certain way for years and now they have to change. But that happens with any new program because you have people who like the way they are doing things.”
Dopp thinks the test is a good idea and said that there has been no trouble initiating it at her parish.
“It's pointing us to where we need to target our energies,” she said. “I see it as positive. I consider myself a middle-of-the-road Catholic. I'm not liberal or conservative, but for too long we have allowed too much flexibility, but losing our identity is a strong way to put it.”
Sister Faltus said the main concerns she's heard have been with changing the number of questions for certain grades.
She said the test has been accepted and is a way to test whether students understand what it means to be Catholic. What makes this test so different from other assessment tests it allows teachers to gauge individual student performance and then “reteach” what was missed, Sister Faltus said.
The archdiocese had used ACRE, a test given by the National Catholic Education Association. At least 163,000 students across the country take ACRE each year.
ACRE doesn't test individual student knowledge. Instead, it's a program assessment tool, said Robert Culvert, executive director of the NCEA. Faith 2000 does both.
Culvert said ACRE is being revised to include that component. Having a test like Faith 2000 doesn't surprise him because there is a shift to help students know what it means on an individual basis to live out their faith, he said.
“There was that period in the Church and society where there was a lot of experimentation on the faith,” Culvert said. “There was this social justice domain and de-emphasis on the knowledge component of the faith.”
More Dioceses on Board
Faith 2000, having only been on the market for one year, is already making headway into other Catholic schools across the nation. Dioceses in Indiana, New Jersey, Illinois and Missouri are using the program.
Pope John Paul II, in his 1999 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America [The Church in America], encouraged just such efforts as Archbishop Buechlein's.
“Well realizing the need for a complete catechesis,” the Pope wrote, “I made my own the proposal of the Fathers of the 1985 Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to compose a ‘catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals,’which could serve as a point of reference for the catechisms or compendia that are prepared in the various regions.
“This proposal was implemented with the publication of the typical edition of the Catechismus Catholicae Ecclesiae. In addition to the text of the Catechism, and for a better utilization of its contents, I intended that a General Directory for Catechesis should also be compiled and published. I heartily recommend the use of these two resources, of universal value, to everyone involved in catechesis in America” (No. 69).
Paula Howard was instrumental in writing the test for the Indianapolis Archdiocese.
A convert, she said it was the Church's tradition that drew her to Catholicism and she wants to impart that heritage to her students. She said the test also allows her to introduce themes into her other lessons when she learns that students might be weak in one area.
“You need to instill in students love for the Church,” Howard said. “They have to understand what the Church believes because there is a lot of anti-Catholicism out there. They have to know why they believe it.”
Jennifer Del Vechio writes from Franklin, Indiana.