Education Commentary

Time To End ‘Disarray’ in Arts Evaluation

By Paul R. Lehman — January 22, 1986 6 min read

There is perhaps no domain of education in which evaluation of student learning is currently in greater disarray than in the arts. Evaluation is possible in the arts just as in other fields, but arts educators have often resisted the task.

Overlooking the distinction between evaluation and measurement, many have taken the position that those aspects of arts education that are most important simply cannot be measured. Many are instinctively repelled by the thought of seeking to quantify the creative impulse of human beings or to express in standardized test scores a child’s love of beauty. They fail, justifiably, to see how any evaluation can adequately represent the chill that soars up one’s spine on hearing a particular passage of music or the aesthetic transfiguration that occurs during an artistic moment of truth.

The reluctance to deal seriously with the problems of evaluation in arts education-whether or not masked by the argument that “you can’t measure what I teach"-is no longer acceptable. One result of this reluctance is that some arts programs have been cut back in an effort to raise test scores in reading, mathematics, and other disciplines where learning is more readily evaluated.

Much of the resistance to evaluation on the part of arts educators is based on fuzzy thinking about the purposes of arts education and the essential nature of the arts curriculum. It is true that there is often no single “right” answer to an artistic problem. But when instructional objectives are realistically conceived and properly stated, it is possible to determine whether they have been achieved.

Some arts educators believe their work contributes to certain fundamental concerns of society that cannot be addressed directly in the curriculum, such as developing young people who are honest and decent, who care about their fellow human beings, and who are well adjusted and capable of leading full and satisfying lives. Such educators are frustrated, because the more subtle contributions they claim to make are not revealed by current evaluation techniques. But such documentation is probably less dependent on future methodological breakthroughs than on the simple act of defining the terms operationally.

The key to evaluation lies in curriculum design. To begin with, the curriculum in the arts must be based on clearly defined objectives. Those objectives must be stated in language everyone can understand, not in esoteric jargon. They cannot be vague, ill-defined, or extravagant. Some of the claims made through the years have undermined the credibility of arts education because no one has taken them seriously.

to “like” the arts--is self-defeating. Affective goals are best achieved as by-products of a rigorous, sequential, high-quality program. They do not work as primary instructional goals-not only because they don’t lend themselves to evaluation, but also because they don’t provide the basis for building a curriculum. Efforts to ensure that students like the subject matter ought not to shape the curriculum in the arts any more than in English, math, or biology. If arts educators use the finest examples from the world of art in their teaching, and if they teach them well, their students will probably like arts courses.

Second, learning in the arts must be based on skills and knowledge, not on fun and games. Certainly the arts are enjoyable. But the greatest enjoyment comes from solid achievement toward worthwhile goals. This requires clear expectations about clearly defined skills and knowledge, not amorphous hopes concealed behind a fog bank of show-biz rhetoric. Any program based on fun and games is doing a disservice to the arts, as well as to the students it serves.

Third, evaluation should be based solely on the achievement of specified goals, not on irrelevant factors such as attendance and effort. In some music-performance groups, for example, students’ grades reflect only whether or not they were present, and an A is the rule rather than the exception. No wonder grades in music are often disregarded, especially by college admissions officers.

Some teachers seem paralyzed by misplaced sympathy for the student who appears to try hard but doesn’t achieve as much as others. The school curriculum is enormously diverse, and everyone will be more successful in some activities than in others. Teachers are naturally concerned about students whose achievement is less than optimal. But it is simply misleading to report that students were successful when the truth is merely that they managed to give the appearance either of making substantial effort or of having limited potential.

Arts education consists of three activities: performance, creation, and study. Evaluation of performance is not only possible but commonplace. It happens every day, both in the professional world and in the world of amateurs and students. Performances can be ranked by relative merit and can be rated according to specified criteria as well. That is, they can be categorized by levels of excellence in the same manner that achievement in other disciplines can be categorized and assigned letter grades. This too is commonplace in performance competitions for individuals and groups.

Creation is a fundamental activity in the visual arts, and should be far more widely taught in the performing arts. Student works of art can be rated by teachers according to specified criteria just as any other classroom work can.

Again, this happens every day among both professionals and students. Learning to make such judgments is a skill that should be developed in students, beginning as early as possible.

The evaluation of study in the arts is simply a matter of determining whether or not students are successful in performing the tasks that represent the desired elements of learning.

One must be certain, of course, that the tasks do indeed reflect the objectives, that they represent the most important elements rather than merely those easiest to translate into behavior, and that the sampling properly reflects the universe of possibilities.

Students should study Beethoven symphonies just as they study Shakespeare plays. They should learn to express meaning through the visual arts and dance just as they learn to express meaning through algebra and chemical formulas. They should learn to play musical instruments just as they learn to use computers.

They should become familiar with the contributions of Bach and Balanchine just as they become familiar with those of Newton and Einstein. The parallels in methodology of evaluation between the arts and the other disciplines are obvious, though imperfect.

Evaluation in the arts need not be based on multiple-choice questions. It need not even be based on paper-and-pencil tests. But no one should imagine that the arts possess some sort of magic that makes them exempt from the demands placed on other disciplines: that there be a clearly stated curriculum to be taught and that there be a systematic effort to determine whether that content has been learned.

If instruction is effective, then sometime, somehow, the student will behave differently as a result. This is as true in the arts as in other disciplines. And if the student behaves differently, there exists the basis for evaluation. If there is no difference in the behavior of the student as a result of instruction, then how can the school claim to have been effective?

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 1986 edition of Education Week