Today at Slate I look at models for testing in art, music, theater, and physical education. Though it may seem absurd to administer standardized tests in these subjects, attempts to do so are proliferating in response to President Obama's Race to the Top program, which asked states and districts to collect student achievement data for every teacher, in every grade level and every subject.
South Carolina has been a trailblazer here. Their fourth-grade music and arts tests do include "performance tasks;" in music, students perform an 8-beat rhythym, and in art they create a drawing that is graded on whether it depicts depth of field, detail, and texture. But there is also a multiple choice component:
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?
I'm not wildly enthusiastic about the multiple-choice sections of these assessments, which I think could shift teachers' attention from creating art with their students to drilling them on vocabularly and concepts, some of which have a tenuous connection to artistic skill and appreciation. But with political and philanthropic forces aligned in demanding more measurement and data, all the time, requiring schools to assess the arts may be one of the most effective ways to make sure they are still offering arts instruction — and taking it seriously. Ideally, I'd like to see more holistic asssment systems like the one offered in Advanced Placement Studio Art, in which students don't sit down for a single high-stakes test, but instead collect their artwork over the course of an entire year, and then submit it to expert graders.