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States Move Toward Standardized Arts Tests

How should students' work in art class be assessed?

New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan, and a handful of other states are experimenting with new standardized tests in the arts, according to the Hechinger Report. It's a development that some hope will help reinforce the place of arts in public schools and illuminate how schools' programs compare. But it also comes with some challenges and concerns about whether and how to quantify the quality of kids' creative work. 

In an interview with Education Week earlier this year, Jim Palmarini, the director of educational policy for the Educational Theatre Association, said that assessments in art subjects could be "advocacy tools" for arts educators looking to explain their disciplines to principals or parents. 

"It affirms the value of arts, that there's a body of knowledge and skill and that it's possible to assess learning, and shouldn't it be taught by people who actually know what they're doing?" Palmarini said. "It's affirming the professionalism of those who teach it."

The arts are included as part of a "well-rounded education" in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law passed late last year. But that signal of federal support comes after years during which many arts educators saw support and funding dwindle as concerns about standardized test scores in subjects like math and reading grew, especially in lower-income schools. Arts education advocates are eager to remind policymakers and their school communities of their subjects' value.

Florida is using multiple-choice questions to evaluate arts learning, while New Hampshire is developing an assessment based on projects that are evaluated by teams of art school teachers.

While the projects are generally considered to be a more full reflection of students' artistic knowledge and skills, this anecdote from the Hechinger Report piece about two art teachers working on the pilot assessments is a reminder that projects aren't exactly easy to grade:

"They paused over another piece that they had both awarded a 3, scoring guidelines in hand, and justified why they hadn't marked the girl down despite the unrealistic placement of her eyes in the middle of her forehead. The scoring system calls for students to use 'deliberate placement'—but who were Boudreau and Austin [the art teachers] to say the choice was not an artistically deliberate one?"

Of course, artists evaluate each others' work regularly—think of the auditions required for elite musical ensembles or art schools. One professor quoted in the Hechinger Report suggests that the K-12 arts tests could also be evaluated by teams of professionals who discuss each individual piece of work. But that approach scaled up to an entire state would certainly require more time and expertise than is invested in many other standardized assessments, which are often graded by computers or temporary employees.

It's noteworthy that the arts assessments are surfacing at a time when some states are backing away from excessive testing. Palmarini said that the assessments may be used as models for instruction, not as high-stakes tests for evaluating schools and programs. 


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