Opinion
Every Student Succeeds Act Commentary

To Measure the Arts, Think Outside the Box

By Sunil Iyengar — June 06, 2017 5 min read

When the U.S. Department of Education released results from its 2016 assessment of 8th graders’ achievement in the visual arts and music, the takeaway for the casual observer was not how well the students scored, but surprise that artistic skills and competencies can be measured in the first place.

This was not news to arts educators. For two decades, the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ arts education framework has been used to set student tests administered by the Education Department throughout the country. Not only that: As every arts ed. specialist knows and as a National Endowment for the Arts research report noted a few years ago, standards-based models and rubrics already exist for assessing student performance in arts education, albeit at varying levels of quality.

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To nonprofit arts organizations, meanwhile—even to those not providing educational services—the idea of measuring progress in arts achievement may have seemed pro forma. After all, our nation’s cultural providers are often on the hook to demonstrate their value to private and public funders who crave user-friendly metrics that show an unambiguous return on investment.

And what about artists? For much of history, they’ve been largely indifferent toward quantifying the arts’ value. And why not? For every critical or commercial success, one can name an artist or a cultural tradition that has escaped the notice of funders or tastemakers hewing to a standard trajectory of artistic accomplishment. But to acknowledge the fallibility of such metrics is not to diminish the need for rigorous tools to assess the artistic contributions of the public sector as a part of its own accountability.

And yet, as prior research has shown (and as practical experience suggests), people’s responses to artwork of various kinds, and even their decisions to partake in an arts activity, are governed by

Measuring arts education presents a different case altogether. The promulgation of standards for arts instruction across various disciplines has been matched by a growing use of formal assessments (typically through observation or performance-based tasks), at least in music and the visual arts. Two gaps remain, however.

One: Despite the presence of such standards, there is no universally consulted metric on the presence of arts education—and on students’ access to it—in our nation’s schools and communities. Now and then, admittedly, the Education Department has taken a snapshot of whether and how certain artistic disciplines are taught in K-12 schools. Though indispensable for a U.S. overview, the survey results can’t be parsed at the state and local levels, where decisions about resource allocation reside. Rather, local measurement techniques—those derived from collective-impact funding models or relying upon data extraction from public school systems or state education agencies —may herald future breakthroughs.

Two: Arts education is frequently integrated with other types of learning (notably with STEM disciplines) both in K-12 and in higher education. What metrics are best used in gauging the success of this integration and any downstream benefits for students, for communities, and for society in general?

In the spirit of the 'well-rounded education' requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, we need a capacious measurement strategy for arts education."

Let’s home in on this second measurement problem. The integration of arts curricula and teaching methods with non-arts subjects arises from the same impulse that has embedded arts programs with other interventions that strive for broader social impact. We might look at the use of the arts and design in health or justice settings, in galvanizing product innovation, or in improving the cohesion of communities and enhancing their economic vitality. In each case, the measurement dilemma is often the same. How do we isolate the arts’impact within a larger program or intervention, or amid a welter of contextual factors?

The answer is bracingly simple: by fighting on multiple fronts. Arts education, like the arts themselves, is a complex system that requires careful mapping of relationships among actors, inputs, outputs, and outcomes. It demands theoretical spadework along with ongoing data collection to strengthen our understanding of those relationships. Just as no two art forms are alike, no single logic model or theory of change can speak to every arts program in the country. Still, we need not shrink from the prospect of pursuing various strands of research—quantitative and qualitative, experimental and observational—to clarify the value of an arts education, including the value of arts integration.

Those benefits can be traced through psychological studies, basic neuroscience, and econometrics. The research might involve a small-scale randomized controlled trial or a series of comparative case studies. It might use social-network analysis or simulation research. Advanced statistical modeling—or computer-aided text analysis—might feature in such studies. For that matter, these examples of research disciplines, designs, and methods are not mutually exclusive.

Research into arts education should state clearly the questions it wants answered and place a premium on rigor, but it must also be adaptive and innovative. It should learn from other fields of research in the academic, nonprofit, and commercial sectors. And itshould embrace the possibility that for unsympathetic eyes to accept the value of an arts education, it may be necessary to venture into terrain not conveniently marked “arts” or “education"—that studies of creativity, human development, entrepreneurship, and civic and social welfare might be the testing grounds for a new hypothesis or research instrument.

In the spirit of the “well-rounded education” requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act, we need a capacious measurement strategy for arts education. Ideally born of public-private collaboration, this strategy could chart a continuum from basic science research to program evaluations that incorporate holistic assessments of student and teacher learning. At a minimum, it would entail routine monitoring of data from students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members.

In lieu of multiple-choice tests alone, the NAEP in arts education relies partly on the assessment of creative tasks—a technique that might be effectively used in measuring other fields of academic endeavor. Now it’s time for impact studies of arts education to reap similar rewards for human understanding of how we learn, work, and play as individuals, teams, and members of society.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2017 edition of Education Week as To Measure the Arts, Think Outside the Box

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