why proficiency worked… in the arts

R – This is Goobermusicteachers‘ 100th blog post. It’s fitting that it’s on this topic. The Maine Proficiency Law, §4722-A. Proficiency-based diploma standards and transcripts was voted into law in 2012. Six years later, it is removed from law. I have my own theories of why. Technology was fundamentally unable to transparently support the work. Communities across Maine made it clear that they were more interested in how their High School kids did compared to other High School kids (grades) as opposed to transparently reporting what their kids actually knew… or didn’t (standards). Schools were given no direction from the Department of Education because, after all, this is a “local control” state. Schools were all over the map with regard to implementation. Post Secondary Education largely doesn’t concern itself with the issues directly confronting High Schools, and therefore did not universally adopt standards scores for admission (can’t fault the parents for that one). The crime here is that thousands – tens of thousands – have said all along that this all won’t last. It will be rescinded, it will end up being like every other “big thing” that’s come down the pike: worthless and a mistake.

This big thing was not worthless and it wasn’t a mistake. And not just because I say so.

Big picture, this big thing was the first one that required us to look at student achievement, as opposed to achievement tools (see “Assessments; Common Local” ca 2006…). And we actually had to be precise about what students knew. This forced us to have very deep discussions about why we do what we do, measure what we measure. And there is no way an educator with an ounce of integrity in their bones could claim that this process of self-examination – for those with equally enough integrity to have authentically done so – wasn’t exceedingly valuable for that reason if nothing else.

How does this apply to the arts? The topic for this blog post.

Looking back to when a few of us founded the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative (now Maine Arts Leadership Initiative) in 2010, it is too easy to forget the landscape back then. We were just coming out of the Common Local Assessment saga and the DOE was in the process of a re-boot. For the arts, we were still wrestling with the pros and cons of the 2007 re-release of the Maine Learning Results and not really moving too fast in any productive direction. The objective of MAAI was the following:

1. Create an environment in Maine where assessment in arts education is an integral part of the work all arts educators do to promote arts education.
2. To build on the exemplary work of curriculum, instruction, and arts assessment to continue to provide and expand on quality arts education programs for all Maine students.
1. Devise a statewide plan for arts education
2. Include professional development opportunities, regionally and statewide to expand on the knowledge and skills of teachers to improve teaching and learning
3. Build on the capacity of arts educators. Utilize technology to gather existing resources, make resources available and create new resources

My own informal goal was based on my experience at the New England Arts Assessment Institute at Plymouth State that Summer: that if we are to ever move the needle with regard to essentialness of Arts Education for our PK-12 students and in our PK-12 schools, then we’d better start getting serious about actually being academic. I’ve written many blog posts over the years alluding to fraudulent high school music programs all over the country practicing as fundamentally co-curricular activities but doing so cleverly disguised as academic subjects, bastardizing our entire profession as a result. It was time in 2010 to put put up or shut up about music education being an essential academic subject. My conviction then and my conviction now is that this is embodied and informed through our assessment practices. This also happens to hold true for visual as well as performing arts.

MAAI’s first attempt at bringing assessment into the arts dialogue was met in-house with a LOT of trepidation: if we hold a conference devoted to assessment, will anybody actually show? “Assessment” in the arts was a dirty word. After much debate we decided to be transparent about our goals and our process as it tied to the importance of assessment. We ended up holding our first biennial statewide conference in October of the following Fall. Back to the Future: Arts Assessment For Learning was held at USM in Portland. We decided that our big, audacious goal would be to have 200 attendees. We knew we wouldn’t get anywhere close, but believed we could at least bend that needle a bit. Not only did we meet the 200 threshold, we had to expand that number the week of the conference when registrations kept pouring in. When it was all said and done, 225 visual and performing arts teachers attended 17 workshops on assessment (a month later Jarika and I started this blog). Proof that the time was right for this work? This was the Fall PRIOR to the Proficiency Law being introduced and passed in Augusta. Once it was, the work of MAAI took off. Exactly two years later, that same biennial statewide conference saw 230 visual and performing arts teachers attend 35 workshops on assessment related topics. MAAI teacher leaders presented their workshops multiple times to over 300 educators during the 2013-14 school year at the regional and state level.

What happened after this is that the Proficiency Law started to drive arts teachers’ work. This meant now having the same conversations with Math teachers and Science teachers. English teachers and Social Studies teachers. What we discovered in many districts around Maine is that it was the arts teachers LEADING these discussions with their faculty, and even their administrators because of the professional development they had already undertaken and built upon in their own classrooms. Proficiency worked… for the arts.

Fast forward to this past year or so. Schools’ failed attempts at proficiency. Schools’ failed attempts at implementing standards based report cards. Schools’ failed attempts at rallying all subject areas around even the concept of proficiency. For all the reasons I stated in the first paragraph and then some. But here’s my takeaway. Ready for it? The essential role of authentic assessment of individual students in our ARTS CLASSROOMS – music and visual arts in particular – was never tied to the Proficiency Law to begin with.

It was a movement that was grass roots.

It was a movement that began because we deemed it important and not because someone told us that it was.

It was a movement that began to move us from a co-curricular mindset of “developing the whole person” to a curricular mindset of actually doing so; academic accountability does not stifle creativity or “love for the subject”, it enhances it.

It was a movement that allowed us to move beyond the idea that assessment was a barrier to student creativity and success, to one of assessment unlocking potential for both that we had never previously imagined.

It was a movement that – for the first time ever – put us on the same equal playing field as the other 7 academic subject areas.

It was a movement that caused and causes us to reflect and refine our work for the expressed outcome of doing right by our individual students.

Best yet, it was a movement that is still moving.

Here’s my hope as we begin the 2018-2019 school year in Maine. Now that the law is gone, take whatever stand you want on standards or proficiency, I couldn’t care less. Those who have bought into it have done so via their own discoveries, firm foundations and convictions. The rest can only do so via a similar journey. That onus is on them 800px-Music_class_usaeither way. But all arts educators must remember that refining their assessment practices – with or without an 11th commandment coming down from the state house – is the booster rocket that will continue to drive us where we need to go in this 21st century, individually and collectively in the arts. We cannot tolerate any longer ANY academic program in music or visual art that isn’t academic in practice any longer. A Math teacher who bases 10% of their grade or more on “participation” ought to be fired for that practice. It’s no longer acceptable to have it accepted in our arts classes. We can’t accept it from ourselves and we can’t accept it from our neighbors. We need to keep after academic integrity by examining sound individual assessment practices based on sound and very transparent academic expectations. Call it proficiency, call it standards, call it good practice, call it common sense, call it being responsible. Call it being a professional educator. Call it whatever you want. But let’s remember that the practicing of this tennet is more important to us now as a profession than it was even back in 2010.

And we aren’t dependent on any stinkin’ proficiency law to keep it moving.


This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Phil Martin (1954-2018): a remarkable educator and even more remarkable person, who served on the staff of the New England Arts Assessment Institute.




This entry was posted in Etcetera. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s