In November 2010, I visited Harrison District 2, a low-income, largely Latino school district in Colorado Springs. As part of a plan to evaluate and pay all teachers according to how well they “grow” student achievement, the district had just rolled out its first-ever testing program in the visual arts, music, and physical education—a program that has since become a national model.
On the first-grade art exam, students were asked to write a paragraph about a Matisse painting. In second-grade gym class, a pencil and paper test required students to “Draw a picture of how your hands look while they are catching a ball that is thrown above your head.”
The program, launched by crusading superintendent Mike Miles (who has since been appointed to a much more high-profile job leading the Dallas public schools), was not immediately embraced. Some Harrison art teachers complained about being assessed on their students’ writing skills, and gym teachers balked that they were now expected to teach drawing. This past school year, Harrison administrators responded to those concerns by showing teachers exam questions ahead of time, and allowing them to give feedback on whether the reading level and content expectations were appropriate for their students. (Administrators say complaints from teachers subsequently fell.)
Harrison supplements its paper exams with what testing experts call “performance-based assessments”: In elementary grades, phys-ed students are asked to show they can dribble a basketball and juggle two scarves; high school music students perform three songs; art students must demonstrate the difference between a one- and two-point perspective drawing. In all these courses, tests require students to write about their learning in full sentences and paragraphs, using subject-specific vocabulary.
Assessments like these are controversial. Many parents don’t like the idea of their already over-tested children taking even more exams, particularly in subjects like art and gym, which are usually thought of as relaxing breaks in an otherwise stressful school day. Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a watchdog group, calls state standardized assessment in the arts “fundamentally ludicrous. Testing knowledge of terms used in artistic disciplines, as some have suggested, is not assessing the arts, but rather how well students memorize and regurgitate specialized language.” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten often advocates for holistic assessment systems, such as portfolios of students’ work collected over the course of an entire semester or year, instead of a drawing or musical performance done in a single sitting. Paraphrasing the (perhaps apocryphal) Albert Einstein, Weingarten likes to say, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
But with the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program providing billions of dollars to states and school districts that agree to evaluate all teachers according to student achievement data, attempts to “count” learning in nontraditional subjects are proliferating. In response to this increased interest, the National Endowment for the Arts recently published a paper reporting that it could find only 30 high-quality arts assessments in use across the country, with far too many schools relying on pencil-and-paper exams to measure students’ art skills. The report recommends the creation of a national, online database of high-quality arts assessments. Under Secretary Arne Duncan, the Department of Education, too, is encouraging states to think beyond fill-in-the-bubble for these nontraditional subjects, but so far, has not released any formal guidelines.
Despite the lack of consensus, states are forging ahead. South Carolina’s fourth-grade music exam, administered via computer, asks: “When singing a melody together with a friend, what dynamic level should you sing? A) Louder than your friend B) Not too loud and not too soft C) Softer than your friend or D) the same as your friend.” (The correct answer is D.) Students are then shown a measure of sheet music and asked to identify which of four electronic recordings matches the notation. The multiple choice section of the state’s fourth grade arts exam shows students a picture, such as one of a vase and a bowl of fruit placed on a chair, and asks them to identify the drawing as either a “landscape,” “portrait,” “non-objective,” or “still-life.” The question is: Does a student’s ability to answer such queries correctly actually indicate arts proficiency? Can such a test measure creativity—or is creativity not the point?