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?

Boy giving presentation at the front of the classroom.
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

Photograph by Ryan Mcvay/Lifesize.

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.)

Advertisement

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?

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Natasha Lyonne Is Coming to the Live Culture Gabfest. Are You?

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 9:19 AM Alibaba’s Founder on Why His Company Is Killing It in China
  Life
Outward
Oct. 2 2014 9:58 AM No Word Yet From the Supreme Court on Gay Marriage 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 10:04 AM Wearing the Button-Down Shirt of the Boy You Once Loved
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 2 2014 9:49 AM In Medicine We Trust Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?