On arts education and testing


How do you assess art? That’s a question came up for me as I was writing this article on a recent study done by Perpich Center for Arts Education about how Minnesota public schools are doing in reaching state arts standards. It turns out that while state statute forbids any statewide testing in the arts, there are ways that school districts can measure how much students are learning- be that through teacher evaluations and professional development, creating requirements that students must obtain, or even creating assessments at the local level. 

I talked to a number of teachers- who use rubrics- or scoring tools- in different ways to gauge how the students are performing. They might be informal rubrics given throughout the year, or somewhat standardized so that students and teachers across different classrooms can be compared. There were also some teachers that I talked to that didn’t use rubrics at all, believing there’s no way to measure the quality of someone’s art.

If you look at the state standards themselves, they are fairly specific, and purposefully leave little wiggle room for interpretation. One state standard for theater, for example, is that a student directs by organizing a rehearsal, or designs by developing environments, or acts by portraying characters in improvised or scripted scenes. The standard doesn’t say anything about whether the scene or play needs to be a brilliant work of art- but rather that the student must direct, design or act in a play if theater is their chosen arts areas of study. Still, if a student is taking a theater class for credit, they are no doubt getting some sort of grade, unless the credit is taken on a pass/fail basis.


Myself, I’ve been teaching after-school classes and summer camps in theater since 2007, for various arts organizations. I’ve never had to grade any of my students- who generally range between kindergarten and sixth grade, which I’m thankful about. It’s hard enough to cast a play and deal with the inevitable heartbreak that follows when not every kid gets the part they want. I remember one summer I was directing a production of 101 Dalmations, and there was this little whisp of a girl who so desperately wanted to play Cruella DeVille, she would come to class in a costume of her own making. She was too young, though, and I cast her as a puppy instead. Oh, the tears! It nearly broke me.

At the same time, as a theater practitioner and as an arts writer, I assess art all the time. No, there’s no test- no systematic method. And yet, as professionals in the craft, we do look at either a whole work of art, or theater and dance- or elements of it- and break down what is working and what isn’t. It’s very subjective, although is informed by certain concrete questions- does it move me? Is it technically proficient? Does it have something to say? What is the use of color and shape, rhythm, silence or empty space? One piece might be completely different than another and still be as effective as a work of art. 

When it comes to assessing kids, I feel wary about it. It seems too rigid, too scientific, but as all education moves toward an assessment model and kids are tested about nearly everything, I wonder if the lack of assessments make the arts seem- to people that are predisposed to not care about the arts- less important. There’s a certain (faux) authenticity that a test gives something. Besides, there are plenty of concrete things in the arts that can be easily tested without judging a student’s art work- being tested on art history or music history, for example, or can they write about art in a clear way?

The question becomes- how do we continue to ensure that all students are getting a well rounded arts background in K-12 without succumbing to the test madness? How do we ensure kids are learning to think outside of the box, when everything about school is learning to stay within the lines?