the dirty word

R – Assessment. In the Arts. In Music. Could there be anything worse? I mean, come on… squelching creativity? Interfering with students’ sheer love of the art? How about the time it takes from class time to actually DO assessments? And how in the world do you assess aesthetics? After all, if the group sounds great, isn’t that what really counts? When the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative decided to run a statewide Arts Assessment Conference in the Fall of 2011, some of the discussion centered around what in the world to call it because, it was pointed out, “if we call it an ‘assessment’ conference, no one will want to come!” No doubt about it: assessment is a dirty word.

Or is it?

Isn’t it true on at least some level that we’ve been guilty over the years of saying out of one side of our mouths, “We’re just as important as the other “core” subject areas! We’re just as much an academic subject as they are!”. And yet out of the other side comes, “Oh, we CAN’T be expected to assess students the same way as the other subject areas! Don’t people understand that?” Music education has often tried to have it both ways. With legislation having already been passed around standards based education in Maine, and the concept of “alternate pathways” being adopted, that time of having it both ways is coming to an end. And this is not isolated to Maine.

Here’s the issue: we want to be academic but we have difficulty holding music students to the academic standard of other subject areas. And that poses a real problem. Have we largely put ourselves in a position where, when it comes time for making budget cuts, there ARE subject areas that are less academic? Like music??? I would argue “no” and so would you, but the argument falls short the moment the topic turns to summative assessment. Math grades are based on academic content. Music’s is based largely on “participation”. Who do you THINK is going to get cut?

The arts, and music in so many ways, are the champions of formative assessment; assessment for learning (music rehearsals are organized, continual mass formative assessment!) but we have often refused to encounter the realm of summative assessment; assessment of student learning. When we don’t hold our students individually accountable to a wealth of standards, it’s usually due to the fact that we don’t have time for it, don’t know how to individually assess them, don’t see them often enough to actually assess individually, or don’t have the facilities or technology to make it all happen to begin with.

And these are very real reasons.

But to a large degree, they cease to be roadblocks any more. The Fall Arts Assessment Conference in October of 2011 in Portland was eventually called an assessment conference and an overoptimistic cap was placed on it for 200 attendees. Over 230 showed up. Eighteen teacher leaders attended a 4 day Arts Assessment Institute in Portland last August and they have reached dozens more teachers from around the state through regional workshops. They’re still doing so. We’ve heard first hand stories of groups of college students and clusters of district level arts personnel huddled around a single computer and speaker phone for a series of webinars that have been held on arts assessment this year. Graduate courses are being offered – and attended – around the state specifically in arts assessment.

As the national standards revision continues to take place, we need to jump-start our profession in the eyes of our administrators and the general public prior to that by getting serious about diving into the assessment pool. We are as essential as the other subject areas, and it’s time to act it. The skills we develop in our individual students, including in the large group ensemble, do employ real academic rigor. But until we assess those skills, individually, on clear-cut measurable standards, whether grades based or standards based, it’s only here-say. Lets change that.

And by the way, since when did giving our students thoughtful, concrete, measurable ways to demonstrate proficiency in a craft that they really love, result in abject misery or loss of love for the discipline? Just asking…

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The Maine Arts Education blog with Argy Nestor – go there and subscribe with your e-mail to receive all her updates. Even if you’re not a Mainer, it’s a “must have”.

This entry was posted in Advocacy, Assessment, Standards and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to the dirty word

  1. dpaquette76 says:

    So difficult for us oldies to get on board with assessment. We need help for the young folks to get us on board but this is essential to the music education all over the world. I am at a brand new international school in South Korea and the same thing is happening here. Standards based curriculum with assessments. We have to join it and stay with it. This is not going to go away.

  2. Karla McClain says:

    Love assessment–yes, I really actually do! The time it takes to assess our students is so well worth it because it actually makes your groups better. The kids know where they are at right now and have a concrete goal to go for. It also informs your teaching.

  3. mllama4 says:

    The fact is, it’s been exciting to see so many going down that road in recent months and years – and being stoked about it! It really can change the way we teach and keep us even better connected to our kids’ growth, AND ours. 🙂

  4. Rob,

    Thanks for your post. For many of us who are “arts educators”, your blog post recounted our own personal journeys with assessment. Some of us started out thinking that “assessment” was a dirty word and have had a learning curve along the way. It has been my experience, having worked statewide with arts teachers, that people are all over the map with their own understanding and implementation of standards and assessments. That’s why the graduate courses (offered through the New England Institute for Teacher Education) are designed to be inquiry-based, allowing teachers to progress from wherever they are in their own learning and practice. And, as you know, that’s why there are many components to the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative: so that we can reach as many educators as we can, where they are.

    We also know that the arts challenge us all, as educators, to balance our teaching with high expectations while nurturing a love and passion for them; by encouraging creativity and ownership while simultaneously raising the bar for kids to meet standards in their knowledge and skills. Visual art, music, theater and dance teachers “get” the meaning of the old proverb – let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

    Finally, we are aware that there are many arts educators out there who are teaching with best practices in standards-based teaching and learning and are doing their very best to juggle limited resources, time, and schedules to do so, because they know how beneficial it is to students. We applaud and encourage those teachers, and we’ve recognized many of them through our Teacher Leaders, through stories through Argy’s blog, and in a myriad of other ways. This is an exciting time for arts education. It’s time to celebrate, collaborate and continue to educate… and grow… and learn….

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