The Art of Testing

Educators are pushing for standardized assessments of knowledge in such subjects as painting and music. In today's high-stakes environment, they feel they have little choice.

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A group of high school seniors sits tensely, about to take one of the highest-stakes tests of their K-12 years: They won’t be able to graduate until they pass, and their school’s state-level rating depends heavily on their scores. Arranging pencils and multiple-choice bubble sheets nervously atop their desks, they wait anxiously until, at their teacher’s signal, they open the test booklet to the first question.

“Which 1913 dance,” it asks, “was the first to incorporate a combination of slow and quick steps: waltz, flamenco, or fox trot?”

While standardized tests with questions like this are rare, arts educators across the country are rushing to endorse them. At a time when pressure to meet performance standards is surpassed only by pressure to keep budgets in the black, many see the assessments as a way to justify their budgets, ensure the future of the subject matter in their schools’ curriculum, and improve their teaching in the bargain.

“There isn’t any doubt that what’s frightening for teachers is, ‘If it’s not assessed, should it be taught?’” says Alex Wagner, an elementary school arts teacher in Pinckney, Michigan. Her district created its own arts test for 7th graders about five years ago—a rarity, as she discovered this past summer while attending a National Art Education Association discussion on visual arts assessments.

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“Each test question was based on a district standard, or benchmark, so that we methodically covered the entire curriculum,” Wagner says. “At the end of each year, we get a computer printout indicating how well students did on each question, [and] we use that information to inform our teaching practices.” What’s more, the district has since taken the assessment process a step further. Students are asked to respond to a variety of questions by, for example, illustrating one-point perspective or designing a monument. Their responses are scored by a team of teachers from all grade levels. A portfolio requirement will be added next.

While most school districts use fine arts standards developed at the national or state level to define the scope of instruction, as well as expectations for the knowledge and skills students should acquire, fewer than 10 states have mandated testing to assess that knowledge; most of those are still being phased in. Where districts do conduct testing, it’s often done “more or less on a voluntary basis,” says Jean Yan, a senior study director for the research and consulting company Westat. In a review of current assessment applications in the fine arts for the Maryland State Department of Education, Yan found that about 20 additional states are still exploring arts assessment possibilities, but she adds that it will take considerable time and effort for them to work out the logistics of administering the tests.

Many see assessments as a way to justify their budgets, ensure the future of the subject matter in their schools’ curriculum, and improve their teaching in the bargain.

The obstacles are complex and abundant. There’s the fundamental conundrum, of course, of how to test a subject as subjective as fine arts. Include the cost of teaching all fine arts content areas to all students and then testing them at a time when arts funding is already limited, and the challenges can seem insurmountable.

“Not every school has the human resources to teach each art component. But if students don’t receive the instruction, they cannot be tested, and that’s a big hurdle,” Yan says. “That situation is very common in many states.” Oklahoma, for example, scrapped its statewide arts assessment at the end of the 2003-04 school year after tracing students’ low scores to inconsistencies between what was taught and what was tested. Arts testing is now left to individual districts.

Even if these bumps can be ironed out, not everyone thinks testing the arts is a good idea. State accountability assessments include more subjects every year, and since each subject can affect a school or district’s overall performance, critics question the wisdom of testing a topic that they consider supplemental rather than an essential life skill, such as math or reading.

“We are in a public education environment of tight budgets coupled with the need to increase student performance. School districts should therefore have sharp focus on core academics,” says Bill Ames, a standards-reform activist in Richardson, Texas. “Using a football analogy, a coach should not teach trick plays until his team is adept in basic blocking and tackling. Those who believe art is as important as the three R’s should seek out special educational opportunities for their children.”

Arts educators and advocates say that’s the very thinking they are trying to counter. They assert that art is a necessity, not a luxury, and should be part of every student’s education—a view shared by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a July letter to superintendents. In the letter, Paige writes that art is considered a core academic subject under the No Child Left Behind Act. “I believe the arts have a significant role in education both for their intrinsic value and for the ways in which they can enhance general academic achievement and improve students’ social and emotional development,” the letter states.

Wagner and other arts education advocates hope standardized assessments can help them prove that point. They acknowledge the difficulty of setting up tests that cover all the bases but say that neither they nor their charges can afford to be without them.

“ ‘Assessment’ is the hot word of the 21st century,” Wagner says. “In school, you want to have a balance in learning. ... We’re part of the big picture, and we should be part of the assessment picture.”

—Kristine Hughes

Vol. 16, Issue 04, Pages 7-8

Published in Print: January 1, 2005, as The Art of Testing
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