FREE SPEECH ZONE | Perpich Center for Arts Education: Constructive assessment of student learning in the arts is possible, and necessary


Assessment in arts education can feel challenging, as Sheila Regan’s blog on Nov. 26 makes clear. She poses excellent questions that many art educators struggle with. As the state agency tasked to support K-12 arts education in Minnesota, Perpich Center for Arts Education believes assessment is key to move an art student’s thinking, decision making, problem solving and creativity forward. So Regan’s comments sparked a lot of thought among our educators here and we wanted to respond in the spirit of continuing this important conversation.

First, two major tests performed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in music and visual arts have established two important facts: 1) that learning in the arts can be assessed and 2) that when students are instructed in the arts they learn more about the arts. At the time these NAEP tests were done, educators really didn’t have a large-scale picture of how to assess the arts, or to see the power of instruction evident in what the assessments showed about how much students were learning. With these results, we have an initial roadmap for assessment and the belief that arts education assessment is worthwhile.

One theme of Regan’s blog is that judging student artwork is difficult and subjective. We think it can be helpful for teachers to draw distinctions between judging student artwork versus measuring and supporting student learning in the arts. Our goal at Perpich is for all students in Minnesota to study the arts and to benefit from their study. Judgment of student work in the sense of “Are they good? or Are they good enough to make it as professional artists?” probably aren’t the most useful questions to ask in arts assessment. Better questions for educators might be: Are they learning? What are they learning? How can we support further learning?

Through creating, performing and responding in all the arts, students can acquire a wide range of knowledge, skills and abilities to reason about and through the arts. So when we assess the arts, our aim is to measure the quality of the knowledge, skills and ability to reason that students attain. We have many windows into student learning along the way as they do authentic work in the arts. Any single end product—a performance or a portfolio—is only one measure that students have learned something important.

It’s true that Minnesota does not have a state test for arts. Minnesota also does not have state tests for social studies, languages, family and consumer science, physical education and health, agriculture or business. Other states do have such pencil and paper forms of statewide arts education assessments, but, from working with arts educators around the state, we find that what teachers want to show is how students are learning substantial and important things in their arts classrooms. They don’t believe that that type of assessment is possible through a pencil-and-paper test.

Arts teachers tell us they value classroom assessments that can be constructed and reviewed and improved on. They want to be able to share them across classrooms in a district, or across districts, just as common assessments are used in other content areas. As a non-regulatory state education agency, Perpich can offer school districts guidance and facilitation through professional development so they can develop consistent assessments that meet state policy.

We agree the state is specific about the essential descriptions of learning: the active verbs in each content standard benchmark describe the kind of knowledge, skill or reasoning that students must attain. In fact, we have been directly involved in helping to develop these standards with the goal of providing a bridge between the policy and classroom curriculum and assessment. The learning targets are specific and measurable; the classroom curriculum is multiple and flexible. Each district program designs or adopts its own best way to support student learning of the standards.

Regan’s blog mentions her struggle as a theater director to assess her students in performance. This can be a big challenge for teachers working in performance arts. The Perpich Arts High School also has to deal with this issue of balance between teaching on one hand and creating performances for the public on the other hand. We want all of our performances to please and excite the audience, but we believe our first task is for the students to learn and understand their skills and talents more deeply through performance so that’s where the assessment happens.

We also have addressed this by adjusting our practices to make incremental experiences available to all students. That helps us to answer the question of how to provide adequate opportunities that are appropriate to the learning needs of all students in the performing arts. At the arts high school, for example, music students are organized into smaller performance ensembles that can have substantial choice about their musical repertoire and instrumentation — distributing important learning opportunities that allow for valid assessment beyond public performance.

Regan’s questions such as — 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? — are all vitally important questions. We suggest putting those questions into the hands of the students, along with the tools and experiences they need to be successful. A teacher then can observe how the students answer the questions and what their answers tell us about their grasp and interpretation of their art. Then comes the teacher’s most important question: What have they learned?

We truly understand that it’s possible an arts teacher might feel that assessment somehow will inhibit learning “outside of boxes.” We don’t want to inhibit the creative spirit! At Perpich we believe that articulating something clearly doesn’t necessarily mean removing its vitality and creativity. In fact, we honestly feel that clear goals and assessments can breath life into learning for all students. It’s not a case of: First 1, then 2, then 3. It’s more a case of: We have 1, 2 and 3 — how can we approach them in ways that are original, creative and skillful and that will allow us to learn more deeply in our art? We hope that isn’t a box — we believe it can be a doorway to an amazing way of knowing.

Sue Mackert is the Executive Director of the Perpich Center for Arts Education.

Perpich is a state agency that serves all school districts in Minnesota. Created in 1985 by the legislature, the agency seeks to advance K-12 education throughout Minnesota by teaching in and through the arts. Perpich staff and faculty provide outreach, professional development, research, curriculum and standards development. The agency includes a statewide arts education library and a two-year public arts high school open to students from throughout the state.

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