Discover Waldorf Education: Assessing Without Testing



“No Child Left Behind” has solidified the ranks of those who believe that high-stakes testing is the only way to advance education. We examine the innovative Waldorf approach to assessment in which learning outcomes are judged in myriad ways — all of them child-friendly, and all of them effective.

Roots or Leaves? 

      Waldorf teachers are fond of characterizing their method of assessment by relating a story about a King and his trusted, though somewhat dull steward.  One day the King, having to leave his palace and venture on a journey of several months’ duration, asked his steward  to look after his beloved rose garden.  Unfamiliar with flowers and their care, the steward asked what his most essential task would be.

      “Above all things,” replied the King, “Be sure that  the rosebush roots  receive enough water.”

      Much to the King’s great surprise, he returned some months later to a rose garden  in which not one living plant remained.

      “My instructions could not have been simpler!” he cried to the shamefaced steward, “What have you done?”

      “Exactly as you commanded,” was the steward’s response.  “Every day we pulled up the rosebushes to determine and examined their roots.  If the roots were dry we watered them well and returned the plants to the soil.” 

      As the King knew well, there are other ways to determine if the roots are receiving sufficient water!  Wilting leaves, desiccated buds or withering flowers would all have been adequate indicators that water was needed.   And, above all, using these indicators would eliminate the need to destroy the plant in order to understand it.  Educators active in the Waldorf school movement are convinced that most contemporary methods of assessment of children in levels K through Eight take the “Pull Up The Roots” approach.   With the zeal of the steward, they undermine the very abilities that they seek to evaluate.

      The Waldorf method of evaluation might be characterized as the “Look At The Leaves” approach.  To facilitate this indirect and qualitative assessment method, several important elements must come into play:

      –The “Class Teacher.”  In the Waldorf system, this is an individual who remains with the same group of children from grades one through eight.  A relationship is thereby cultivated in which the teacher comes to know the children, their “learning styles” and their developmental needs in a comprehensive manner.

      –The “Patient Parent.”  We are a culture devoted to “instant gratification” and geared up for short-term results.  Just as the Class Teacher commits herself to the long-term development of the child, so must the parent be willing to put a number of culturally-determined anxieties aside and accept  an educational method that allows the child’s capacities to unfold gradually.  Rather than acting as the passive consumer of evaluative judgments made by the school, the Waldorf parent is asked to be an active part of the assessment process.

      –A closely-knit “Community of Evaluators.”  In making her evaluation of the child, the Class Teacher has to work with a group of special-subject teachers who can speak of the child’s progress and so contribute to the total picture of the child.  Other class teachers are in turn active in mentoring and assessing the class teacher’s judgments.

      –A variety of assessment instruments and methods.  Eschewing the graded quiz or the standardized test as the only “objective” methods, the school community must be willing to work with a “portfolio” style approach that includes the child’s drawings, paintings, knitting,  facility of movement, musical skills, oral expressiveness etc. as factors that are no less important than the more easily determined powers of cognition and verbal memory. 

      –Conversations.  As the above criteria must make clear, the Waldorf assessment method is time and labor intensive in nature.  It cannot function without numerous meetings and conversations between teacher and teacher, and teacher and parent.  The final written evaluations, described below, are only the final step in a process that goes on ceaselessly throughout the school year.


The Class Teacher 

      If we accept the premise that the child is a being who unfolds her capacities over the course of time, then it follows that the most valid assessments that can be made of a child’s development are those that are compiled over the course of long periods of time.  It is also helpful if the dynamic and rapidly changing developmental stages of the child can be overseen and accompanied by the stabilizing consciousness of one adult.  This is the role assumed by the Class Teacher. 

      All too often, teachers feel like workers on an assembly line, specializing in but one year of the child’s life, only vaguely aware of the experiences undergone by the child on an earlier level, and slightly able to control the type of experiences the child will have in grades yet to come.  Such awareness–and such responsibility–are the hallmark of the class teacher’s work.  That which he perceives to be a problem for a given child at the close of first grade will not simply be noted and passed on to a new second grade teacher; on the contrary, both child and problem will continue with the class teacher!  Thus the class teacher’s evaluations of children do not only delineate problems, but also describe the measures that the teacher will take in the year, or years, to come in remediating the problem.

      No less significant is the potential that such a long-term relationship provides for the involvement of a teacher with the whole child.  By “whole” I mean not only the child as a being of body, soul and spirit, but in its connection with family, community and environment.  The class teacher avails herself of opportunities to visit the child at home, and comes to know the child’s parents, grandparents and/or step-parents.  She leads the child on challenging hikes, accompanies him on canoe outings or lives with him and his classmates for days at a time on camping trips.  She observes his changing and maturing response over the years to the joys and tragedies that accompany all growth.

      She knows well how he performs under pressure, and whether he tends to be content with quick “nibbles” of knowledge or prefers to savor it slowly and privately.  In short, the class teacher has the unique possibility of developing a long-term, involving and yes, loving relationship with every student in her class.

      It is interesting that there is no place for “love” in the quantitative methodology that underlies most standardized testing.  Indeed, the love that a teacher bears for a child is perceived as an obstacle to the “objective” assessment  provided by an examination.  Although the a love too strongly tinged with sentimentality can make one blind to the faults of another, the love that the class teacher strives to cultivate can awaken one to the highest potential that lives in another.  By measuring a child’s performance in relation to such a realm of possibility, the class teacher acknowledges that the only valid “standard” in testing is that of the unique individual.   

Peers and Parents

      Although it might be accepted that the long-term relationship of the child to the class teacher could be a fruitful one, it still might be argued that having teacher and evaluator rolled up into the same person–especially when so much of the work is of a qualitative, rather than quantitative nature–could present a moral challenge.  What is to prevent the class teacher from skewing his assessments, if ever so slightly, so that by ever and again stressing the children’s improvement, he makes himself look good?

      By way of responding to this question, I will pose another one: “Why did standardized testing arise to begin with?”  Could it not be said that standardized methods of evaluation arose when colleges no longer had a collegial relationship with the secondary schools attended by their applicants, or when superintendents of schools no longer knew and trusted their principals, who in turn no longer had time-tested relationships with their teachers?  When the community of colleagues disappears, the “objective examination” is born. 

      No method of assessment is in itself proof against human frailty.  It is significant that standardized tests are themselves often subject to incidents of large-scale cheating on the part of students, and now and then educators under pressure have been known to tamper with the results.  For this reason, among others, the community of teachers within the Waldorf school assumes great importance in our assessment process.

      In any Waldorf school, the teachers meet frequently with one another.  A Waldorf teacher’s “training” is never simply ended, to be supplemented now and then with continuing credits.  Rather, the weekly faculty meeting is a key in every teacher’s on-going self-education, as colleagues discuss pedagogy, share new insights into children, and hone their teaching skills with one another as subjects.

      Younger teachers usually are mentored by older, more experienced faculty members.  All colleagues are encouraged to visit one another’s classes and to critique each other’s approaches and results.  Out of this sense of community and colleagueship, the faculty is able to oversee and “evaluate the evaluator,” helping him to maintain objectivity in regard to his class’s achievements.  Whereas the conventional syllabus, driven by the standardized test, compels teachers to work apart from one another, each striving to improve the scores of his particular group, the Waldorf curriculum calls for a community of peers, a true colleagueship.

      The parent’s role in the ongoing assessment process is also an essential one.  In most Waldorf schools, parents are expected (or even required) to attend three or four “Parent Evenings” a year, in the course of which the class teacher, often with the assistance of special-subject teachers, shares his picture of the class as a whole.  The teacher will often engage parents in the sorts of artistic/pedagogical activities done by the children of that grade level, discuss aspects of child development, and share her approach to the subject matter being studied at that time.  While these meetings take place, the work done by all the children is on display, so that parents not only see their own child’s work, but see it in the context of the whole class.  Rather than have their child’s work judged against an abstract “standard” which is statistically derived, parents can judge for themselves where their child’s achievement stands in relation to a very real and visible peer group.

      As teachers in an independent system of schooling in which individual schools are faculty administered, Waldorf educators are answerable not to the fiats of school boards and legislators, but only to those they serve–parents and their children.  We are cognizant of the fact that our “soft” methods of evaluation, and our slower, process-driven method of teaching run against the grain of much that is fashionable in modern education.  This unquestionably puts a burden on our parents, most of whom are themselves the products of educational systems that used only “hard” assessment methods and were generally “test-driven.”  Parents are also barraged with a ceaseless flow of “research” generated by the testing services and their affiliates espousing the need for ever more testing on the state and even the national level.  With this in mind, Waldorf schools regularly organize “Parent Education Workshops,” in which evenings or weekends are devoted to sharing aspects of Waldorf pedagogy which cut across specific grade levels.  In conjunction with displays of student work from grades one through eight or beyond, such gatherings give parents insight into the way in which our methods of assessment, like our education itself, unfolds over the course of time. 

      Obviously, a qualitative evaluation method depends on the trust and support of parents.  The more these parents know about the rationale for such an approach to assessment, the more their trust and support will be justified.  The Waldorf method depends upon the patience of parents, and works hard to help the “patient parent” recognize that, in the Waldorf school at least, patience is its own reward.  Just as qualitative evaluation demands the community of teachers, so it demands a community of teachers and parents, which is, after all, a well-recognized component of any truly effective educational method. 

The Assessment Instruments

      Not only are graded tests missing in the Lower School years of the Waldorf school; textbooks are rarely to be found either.  For many children in mainstream education, “learning” is a process of vacillation between text and test; rapidly ingesting the contents of the book (like so much fast food) they rapidly regurgitate those contents at the command of the tester.  Any sense of a digestive process, of taking the subject matter within and genuinely making one’s own, is missing from this process.

      In the Waldorf school, the “Main Lesson Book” serves both as text and test; it performs the seemingly contradictory purposes of imparting knowledge and skills and evaluating the degree to which the child has mastered them.  It is thus able to serve as the keystone of the Waldorf evaluation process.

      A main lesson book may either be a collection of loose sheets which are bound together after the child has worked upon them, or, in its more common form, a softbound book with twenty-four to sixty blank pages.  Younger children work with books with large pages, 12″ by 12″ or even 12″ by 18″; older classes’ books have pages that are 9″ by 12″.  The main lesson book is a text created by teacher and child together which represents a quintessence of all that the child has learned in a Main Lesson Block (the term given to Waldorf “units” and usually lasting between two and four weeks) in the course of which a particular subject is studied intensively. 

      In the lower grades, a main lesson book for a subject such as “Fables” would consist of retellings of a number of stories, with accompanying illustrations.  Much of the younger child’s book contents would have been copied in beeswax crayons from drawings and writing done by the teacher on the blackboard.  As the children write, the teacher moves about the room, commenting on the children’s work, giving advice and assistance, and making mental notes on the students’ struggles and triumphs.  Is the child reading what is on the board with comprehension, or merely copying a succession of words?  Is the child “penetrating” his drawing by firmly pressing on his crayon and filling the page with color, or is he tending to create a light, pastel effect? 

      In the middle years, main lesson books for subjects as diverse as “Housebuilding” or “Botany” or “Ancient History” increasingly include the child’s own compositions (rough drafts are first corrected by the teacher and then entered into the book) and drawings and diagrams which the child has herself developed.  By seventh and eighth grade the main lesson books are almost completely created by the youngsters themselves, with strikingly original compositions and drawings throughout.  Math books will have pages describing the new concept or operation learned, as well as sections with practical problems, and may be supplemented with folders containing the year’s math homework.  Science main lesson books are replete with descriptions of laboratory demonstrations, as well as essays about the general scientific principles that have been explored. 

                                Page from a Grade One main lesson book: a fairy tale

                                         Page from a Grade 5 History main lesson book



                                     Page from a Grade 8 Chemistry main lesson book

       All of these books are collected at the end of a main lesson block and reviewed and critiqued by the class teacher.  When they are returned to the student, these books become catalysts for conversations between students and their parents concerning what has been learned in a block (or school year).  The author has see individuals who were students in the first Waldorf School proudly showing their main lesson books to their grandchildren.  Could one imagine anyone doing that with an old textbook?

      Thus the main lesson book is a “textbook” that arises out of real-life lessons, rather than a pre-written volume that shapes the lessons in advance.  Before the child writes, or draws, or places diagrams, math problems etc. into her book, she has heard it fully discussed in class.  If she is still unclear about an assignment, she is free to ask questions of the book’s “author,” her class teacher.  How different from the conventional textbook, which is written by a distant committee of authorities who quiz the student at the conclusion of every chapter but are themselves unavailable for questioning!

      Another assessment instrument utilized by the Waldorf teacher is the oldest testing method of all–asking students questions in class discussions.  From first grade on, a portion of every main lesson is devoted to “review,” which is primarily oral in nature.  In first grade, various children are asked to retell a fairy tale or recite a poem.  In third grade, a child will stand in the front of the room with a clock with moveable hands, setting it to different times and asking classmates to correctly tell the time; another child will begin a poem and throw a beanbag to a classmate who is to say the next line and throw the bag again.  In eighth grade, two students, portraying monks at the time of the Reformation, engage in a lively debate about Martin Luther and his conflict with Pope Julius; later that year, they invite their parents to visit the classroom while the youngsters demonstrate electrical and magnetic phenomena.     

      This “Socratic dialogue,” though endangered in many spheres of modern education, remains alive and well in the Waldorf schools.  We continue to believe that a real conversation between a child and an adult of flesh of blood is a profoundly superior experience to the “point-and-click” conversation a student might have with the “dialogue boxes” found on educational software programs.  The Waldorf teacher judges not only the “correctness” of the child’s answer, but also weighs the way in which the child stands, the clarity of speech, the child’s enthusiasm or lassitude in answering and a host of other subtle nuances which transcend any standardized formulae.

      The typical Waldorf main lesson not only involves desk time, but brings the children into movement.  From first through fifth grade, many subjects are approached through rhythmic games as well as through discussion and book work.  Thus a teacher is able to assess the youngster not only as a developing intellect, but also as a being of “heart and limbs.”  This calls for the faculty of active observation to be developed by every Waldorf teacher, for in the last analysis it is the teacher who is the ultimate “assessment instrument.”  The child is thereby assessed as a whole person engaged in activities that challenge every component of the developing human being. 

Communicating Assessment Results 

      Parents of children in the Waldorf school movement learn of their child’s progress through two methods; the required parent meeting with the class teacher (mentioned above) and the written report which is sent home once or twice a year.  Conversations with parents usually take place immediately before or after the written report has been received.  In a situation where parents and teacher discover that they disagree strongly over a report or evaluation, further discussions will be scheduled; it is essential for a consensus to be reached about the child’s needs and progress. 

      The written report takes on a number of forms in Waldorf schools across the country.  In most cases, it is a narrative description of the child’s work, attitude, social integration etc. presented without any number or letter grades; rarely is any sort of “grid” utilized to make the report appear “standardized.”  Although the class teacher’s report is the longest and most descriptive, each of the special subject teachers is also required to write at least a paragraph or two about the child’s performance in the time period under discussion.  The parents of a Waldorf fifth grader may receive three or five pages (in total) of reports midyear, and six to ten pages at the year’s end. 

      As the years go by, the advantages of the “community of teachers,” mentioned above, becomes evident.  Every new report is enhanced by comparisons of the child’s performance in prior grades, and subtle changes may be noted which would fall in between the cracks were the child only passed on from one teacher to another through the grades.  The on-going dialogue between the class teacher and special subject teachers also helps to bring consistency and clarity to the various “voices” heard in the reports.

      Many Waldorf teachers accompany this “parent-directed” report with a report written directly to the student.  This may be simply a letter to the child which recapitulates what has been written to the parents in simpler terms.  More often, it will be a creative effort on the part of the teacher to capture the essential nature of the child in a story, poem, or even a drawing or painting.  While we acknowledge that parents need “the facts” to evaluate their child’s progress, we recognize that the child needs a picture, or better yet, an “imagination” in which the child’s own nature is envisioned in terms of the outer world.      

      Here is an example of a section of a report written to the parents of a fifth grader: 

         …Susan’s initial reaction to any new work in math is to cry out, “I don’t get it!” and to convince herself that she never will get it.  After this initial period of uncertainty, however, she quiets down, makes the requisite effort, and gradually masters the work along with her classmates.  Susan followed suit by resisting our transition from fractions to decimals, even though her teacher insisted that she would find that decimals were much easier to manipulate.

         Working with decimals in the abstract or in relation to fractions did not do the trick with Susan, but as soon as we looked at the decimal system that underlies the monetary systems of the world, she was thoroughly engaged!  Her workbook will make it clear to you how her neat and clear methods of working with numbers make it very easy for Susan to trace any mistakes she has made, and you will note that after three lessons about decimals, her mistakes are few and far between.  Susan shows full comprehension of adding, subtracting and multiplying decimals.  She is well able to divide whole numbers into decimals, but still shows some hesitation when dividing decimals into decimals.  We will be reviewing this last, challenging operation early in sixth grade, before we take up percentages, and I think that Susan’s usual persistence will lead her to mastery in this area as well…                                  

      Susan herself received a poem from her teacher, based on the

study of Alexander the Great that the class had undertaken at the end of fifth grade.  Bucephalus was a spirited horse who could not be broken by Prince Philip’s staunchest generals: 

                         Bucephalus stood wild and free,                 

                           His nostrils proud and flared;

               He seemed to whinny and neigh to all,

               “Come tame me, if you dare!”

               So many were thrown as they mounted him

               That all were filled with fear. 

               “I’ll tame this steed!” Alexander said,

               Rushing in where generals feared to tred.

               Around the horse was gently led,

               Away from the shadow that caused it such dread,

               And now towards the sun it galloped instead. 

      Tempting though it might be to add another few lines providing a moral to the tale, the teacher chose instead to let the girl make her own connections.  Over the summer, her parents would help her to memorize her “report verse,” and during the next school year, she and her classmates would recite their verses to the class on a regular basis. 

      For the teacher, the possibility of communicating the same evaluation in one way to the parents and in another way to the child is challenging and energizing.  The opportunity to respect the profound differences in consciousness between the adult and the child is but one of the potentials afforded by the Waldorf method of assessment.  As our nation questions the rationale for standardized and quantitative testing ever more profoundly, it is to be hoped that the experience that Waldorf educators have had with their innovative modes of evaluation over the course of seven decades will serve as an example to all who are concerned about the proper development of the child.   

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