Are Standardized Tests for the Arts Even Possible? 

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 13 2012 7:05 AM

No More Ditching Gym Class   

The next wave of standardized testing is here, measuring your kids in art, music, and phys ed. Is that even possible?

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Florida has launched a statewide Performance and Fine Arts Assessment Project to develop a “bank” of test questions and performance-based assessment scenarios for dance, music, and theater, from which local schools can borrow. The most potentially controversial idea Florida is exploring is whether artificial intelligence software might be able to score at least some portion of students’ musical performances, recorded and submitted electronically. AI musical assessment already exists, and is used to help students learn whether the notes they sing or play are on-pitch—which is, of course, just one of many elements that make up a competent musical performance, some of which, such as emotional engagement with the music, might be impossible to quantify.

As I’ve reported in Slate, the push toward computer grading of student essays has a lot to do with saving money; while the technology can assess grammar, spelling, and structure, it cannot yet tell whether students have real knowledge of facts from the curriculum. So as the education establishment moves forward with arts assessment, will states and test-makers follow recognized best practices or go with less rigorous, cheaper, easier to administer exams and grading systems? There is ample precedent for shortcut taking in public school testing: When No Child Left Behind required schools to assess all students in math and reading, many states made tests easier in order to inflate proficiency numbers. Last month, Florida rejiggered the grading of its writing exam in order to avoid embarrassingly high failure rates.

So, when it comes to arts assessment, what are the acknowledged best practices? The International Baccalaureate program, a college-preparatory curriculum available to schools around the world, provides one sophisticated assessment model.  I talked to Tara Brancato, a fifth-year music teacher at the Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy International High School (KAPPA), a Bronx public school with a high-poverty student population. As part of their end-of-course IB exam, Brancato’s 11th- and 12th-grade students listen to recordings and identify their composers, time periods, and musical features; compose original pieces of music; perform on their instruments; and write a research paper comparing musical cultures from around the world. Brancato has fair warning about what will be on her students’ tests, which are created and graded in Cardiff, Wales by IB administrators. She might know in advance, for example, that her students will hear recordings by Mozart and Aaron Copeland, but she won’t know which specific pieces they will hear or what they will be asked about them. Brancato’s teacher evaluation score is partially based on how well her students do on these tests from year to year, and so she gives a lot of practice assessments—something she doesn’t mind, because she thinks both the IB curriculum and the assessments attached to it are high quality. 

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Another model comes from the nonprofit College Board’s Advanced Placement studio art course, which requires students to electronically submit portfolios of artwork created over the course of a year—the kind of assessment program many teachers’ unions support. The College Board’s website provides free examples of high-scoring student drawings, sculptures, and other works of art. Even Bob Schaeffer of FairTest hails this assessment, which he says is “not perfect” but is at least “based on a real body of work.”

In 2007 the Theater Communications Group, a trade association, launched the TEAM project to help theaters across the country work with schoolchildren whose learning outcomes need to be measured, often to maintain funding for theater programs in a time of budget cuts. One of the biggest challenges in using student achievement data to evaluate teachers is getting a snapshot of what students know (or don’t know) when they enter a classroom, so their “growth” can be tracked over the course of a semester or year. TEAM recommends surveying students at the beginning of a theater program with questions like: “Have you seen a play before? “Have you read a play before?” “Are you confident performing on stage?” The students are asked similar questions at the end of the program, in order to measure their progress. It’s easy to imagine how data from such surveys could be included as part of a teacher’s evaluation grade.

Measuring teachers according to how well their students perform a monologue or create an oil painting—or even how much they learn to enjoy art— will never be exactly like tallying up test scores in algebra, and shouldn’t be. But if schools assess students fairly in the arts—and ideally involve teachers in creating these assessments—they’re sending an important message: The arts matter. After a decade of No Child Left Behind, in which the arts, social studies, and science were often scaled back as schools obsessed over math and reading scores, this could be a real upgrade. The challenge will be in training teachers, improving the curriculum, and communicating with students and parents about what nontraditional assessment is all about. In most districts, this work has barely even begun.

Dana Goldstein is the author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, and a staff writer at The Marshall Project. 

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