Arts Standards Need Better Assessments

In my work for the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), I have argued in a briefing paper (The Rise of Standards and the Need for Assessment Models in the Arts; A Briefing paper written for TCG’s TEAM meeting on May 9-10, 2006), that when standards are involved, the need for better assessments is paramount. In fact the quality of standards depends on the accountability provided by assessments. In this particular paper, I wrote that, in 1994, the second discipline to join the standards movement after Math was the Arts. The Consortium of National Arts Education Associations realized that:

“Arts education standards can make a difference because, in the end, they speak powerfully to two fundamental issues that pervade all of education- quality and accountability”

(Consortium of National Arts Education Associations 1994).

These two features, quality and accountability, are topics of current and ongoing political discussions regarding American education and therefore are of interest to the TCG’s Theatre Education Assessment Models (TEAM) working group. The national arts groups were also interested in arts education standards to “ensure that the study of the arts is disciplined and well focused, and that arts instruction has a point or reference for assessing its results” (Consortium of National Arts Education Associations 1994).

In addressing these issues, the Standards insist on the following:

  • That an arts education is not a hit-or-miss effort but a sequenced and comprehensive enterprise of learning across four arts disciplines, thus ensuring that basic arts literacy is a consequence of education in the United States;
  • That instruction in the arts takes a hands-on orientation (i.e., that students be continually involved in the work, practice, and study required for effective and creative engagement in all four arts disciplines);
  • That arts education can lead to interdisciplinary study; achieving standards involves authentic connections among and across the arts and other disciplines;
  • That taken together, these Standards offer, for the first time in American arts education, a foundation for educational assessment on a student-by-student basis” (Consortium of National Arts Education Associations 1994).

National Models for Assessment

The danger in our work of creating national models of assessment is that we will undercut our capacity-building efforts and these models will be seen as standardizing and narrowing the product of student learning in theatre. A counter influence in the arts research literature points to restraint in claims about the role of arts in academic achievement in the absence of rigorously designed arts research (Hetland 2000). A most recent contribution is the notion that the debate should be reframed so that the benefits of the arts should be celebrated from an aesthetic and intrinsic point of view only (McCarthy, Ondaatje et al. 2006). These ever narrowing viewpoints are supported by public education policy in the No Child Left Behind law (Congress 2001). The narrow way in which accountability is construed in this law is narrowing our curriculums all over America as time and money are concentrated on test prep. The Arts as a serious part of the academic core are becoming more and more marginalized.

On the other hand, one cannot ignore a building foundation of research that is Influenced by the current emphasis on interdisciplinary learning (Gardner 1999; Mansilla 2004), brain research that supports learning in the arts (Gardner 1982; Gardner 1999), and the trend of accountability (Consortium of National Arts Education Associations 1994; Ravitch 1995; Congress 2001). Arts educators today are expected to design and implement effective lessons and assessments as well as show evidence of student learning in the arts and in core academic subjects (Goals 2000 Arts Education Partnership 1997; Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education 1997; Southworth 2001).

If we achieve our goals by providing useful capacity-building models for assessment in theatre, we will be in concert with some of the national trends of realizing the importance and centrality of the arts to students and their lives:

“The arts help to make learning matter to students…the arts put students in active and meaningful roles in their classrooms and connect schools to student’s lives and cultures.  They opened possibilities for students to contribute to their communities and made learning an authentic project in which students explored not only the content of academic subjects but their own lives and identities”

(Daesy and Stephenson 2006, p. 17).

In developing multiple assessments that more accurately measure student learning, we will begin to add to the literature on the transfer and assessment of arts skills and core academic skills. This is a much more important outcome to study as it parallels the transformation in assessment strategies from standardized ways of measuring students to more nuanced ways of understanding student comprehension (Southworth 1997-1998). Instead of measuring the product of learning, we hope to promote Dewey’s main contention that art is “a quality of experience” rather than a product (Dewey 1934). The SchoolWorks Lab, Inc. has found in previous work on large scale projects such as San Diego and The New York State Council on the Arts that the most valuable outcome from those projects was the increased capacity of the teachers and administrators to achieve quality and realize accountability through assessment (Southworth 2002; Southworth 2003).

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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