Education Opinion

Standardized Testing in the Arts? No. Please, No.

By Nancy Flanagan — June 19, 2012 5 min read
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When it comes to assessing music students, and their learning, I can say with confidence that I am a bona fide expert.

I did this work for thirty years--by my count, evaluating well over 5000 music students, giving them grades and feedback. Which only means I had lots of practice--not necessarily proficiency--but depth of experience matters here. Over three decades, I developed and continuously adjusted a conceptual framework for evaluating the most important skills and knowledge of student musicians, using (and often rejecting) multiple models and metrics. I did it wrong before I did it right. Once I understood that I finally had it right, I kept fine-tuning.

I also served on the 16-member national team that created the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certificate for music teachers, under the guidance of Educational Testing Service (ETS), pretty much the gold standard in educational assessment. I was a benchmarker for hundreds of NB portfolio cases and written exams, setting performance standards, observing the thinking and work of National Board Certification candidates in music (who tend to be a high-performing, self-evaluative group already). I learned a lot about valid and reliable performance assessment from these experiences.

Which is why I read with dismay Dana Goldstein’s latest report on new standardized tests in music, which are already being used to evaluate music teachers in some states. I read Diane Ravitch’s subsequent probing commentary with mounting frustration--Why is this so difficult for policy-makers to understand? Didn’t any of them play in the school orchestra or sing in the chorus of “Annie Get Your Gun?”

Then, I read Sara Mead’s follow-up blog with still more irritation and cynicism. Mead is dubious about the idea that music appreciation is a worthwhile educational goal (“we’re free to choose the art we enjoy, or whether we enjoy it at all”). She puts “creativity” in quotes, as if it weren’t a real, teachable thing. She suggests that memorizing key artists and composers, vocabulary, and historical periods will build students’ “cultural literacy.” Unspoken: These items are easy to fit into a standardized, machine-scored test, unlike “subjective” human evaluation of student performances, products and understanding.

Key point: Why would we deliberately advance a worthless (and expensive-to-develop) mode of assessment for something as crucial to kids’ well-being and our own economic vitality as the arts? The humanities are a creative wellspring for individual and social innovation. They cannot--and should never be--reduced to rote, bubbled-in recitation of dry facts. What standardized testing in music and the arts yields is mere quantification of students’ ability to memorize. The tests tell us nothing about how students will apply artistic skill and expression to their real lives and careers. Further--they tell us nothing about the instructional quality of their teachers.

Let’s start by debunking this myth: Standardized testing in the arts should be applauded because investment in test development means arts teachers might get to keep their jobs! This is like saying thank goodness for all those infarctions, because now we can staff our high-tech cardiac unit. Setting info-regurgitation tests into concrete will only make it easier to package and standardize bunch-of-facts arts curricula for broad dispersal, perhaps on-line, completely avoiding ineffective practices like singing together, rhythmic movement games, painting and sculpting, developing listening skills or putting on a show.

Besides, the arts have been considered dispensable, fringe disciplines by educational reductionists for a long time, well before compulsive standardized testing and the Common Core Everything. Tests won’t preserve the things that make the arts essential in human expression--and may well hasten their demise in the curricular pantheon, crushing them by turning culture into flat pellets of knowledge.

Says Mead: Arts and music instruction in our schools has often ignored cultural literacy and key concepts in favor of performance and “creativity.”

I’d like to assure Mead that cultural literacy is alive and well in high-quality music programs, and goes far deeper than knowing names of major composers, historical periods in Western music and components of theory. Good music teachers connect music to social movements, the physical properties of sound, theories of self-critique, and communication in a completely new, aural language. They teach analysis, application, purpose and relevance of music--and, in the process, genuine appreciation, a word that means a great deal more than being free to “like” something.

Music teachers do put an emphasis on performance. The primary reason is because doing something is the quickest way to engage students--and music teachers don’t get a lot of instructional time. I don’t know many music teachers who wouldn’t rather teach harmonic improvisation than sit in the bleachers on frigid Friday nights with the marching band--but performances are how we connect to the community. Good music curriculum is built almost entirely on using the tools, history and language of music to create something new--a new song, a new level of performance, a new source of joyful expression.

As blogger, teacher and bucket-drummer Michael Albertson notes, music educators need to ask, “Why should students care about this?”

If the answer is “so they can pass the test,” we’re not describing first-rate music curriculum or instruction.

What I know as a music assessment specialist: We measure what we value. We can shoot to expand teachers’ own assessment literacy in the arts. We can enhance their instructional and curricular repertoires. But we won’t raise teaching quality in the arts by creating standardized tests.

I listened to an NPR story on the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble on the way home from community band rehearsal last night. Trumpeter and educator Phil Cohran (who’s 85) taught eight of his sons to play brass instruments, eventually forming a band with an unmatchable tonal and compositional melding. The interviewer asks “What was it like to teach your sons?” and Cohran says “Well, first they had to get the right feeling...”

Assess that.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.