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nothing which is not alive can be art;
nothing which cannot be art is true;
and everything untrue doesn’t matter a very good God damn.
e. e. cummings (1940)
Achievement in Difficult to Assess Curricular Areas: The Arts
The previous article Assessing Student Achievement in Difficult to
Assess Curricular Areas: Social Knowledge and Skills
complexities and possibilities of K-12 assessment programs that include
social knowledge, beliefs, and skills. This article explores similar
issues in the arts.
Current school assessment programs focus on factual knowledge and
skills that can be reduced to a true/false dichotomy. For example,
chair is spelled c-h-a-i-r, and no other spelling in English is
correct. Even if we used various fonts or writing implements, we would
still have to spell it c-h-a-i-r. An assessment program that requires
this kind of precise response consistency can’t effectively assess the
The arts use a variety of approaches to aesthetically enhance objects,
places, events, and cognitive processes. They celebrate ordinary
objects and processes by turning them into something extraordinary. For
example, woodworkers can artistically create many different kinds of
chairs that have from several or no legs (pillow chairs) plus a wide
variety of seating surfaces, backs, and decorative elements.
Artists can include chairs in paintings, photographs, and stage sets.
Asking which chair or depiction of a chair is correct is thus a
The arts are thus unique expressions that respond to the variety of
preferences that people have. If it were possible to objectively and
precisely evaluate artistic expression, it wouldn’t be art but rather
reproducible craft. There’s certainly nothing wrong with craft (a
manufactured chair) but it’s not art (a hand-made chair)—even though
both crafted and artistic chairs can be beautiful and utilitarian.
Or consider an orchestra that plays the same concert program on
successive evenings. The conductor, players, instruments, auditorium,
and printed score are the same. But the two concerts will be subtly to
significantly different. If one of the concerts (an artistic
performance) is recorded, and the recording is carefully reproduced (a
crafted product), each playing of the recording will sound the same to
Arts assessment thus isn’t objective—in that it compares the
product/performance with an absolute value of excellence. It also isn’t
comparative—in that it doesn’t objectively compare the
product/performance with those produced by others or by the same artist
at different times or in different settings. Arts assessment is a
subjective assessment of a unique expression— and that’s why educators
have had so much trouble in developing arts assessment programs in K-12
school settings that seek reproducible objectivity.
Arts performances and products are obviously evaluated. Critics do it
all the time. But their criticism is subjective, and two competent
critics may differ considerably on their assessment of the same
artistic performance or product. The value of such critical assessment
is thus dependent on the experience and credibility of the critic, and
not solely on some external objective measure (such as that the
orchestra played 98% of the notes correctly, or the violists were the
busiest). Critics use such vague terms as exciting, soaring,
perfunctory, and mournful to subjectively applaud or question the
choices the conductor and musicians made, and readers get the general
A decreasing number of precollege teachers with professional training
and critical competence in the arts may thus be the most serious loss
in the diminution of arts education programs. It’s foolish to demand
credible assessment in the arts and then to eliminate the educators who
were trained to do it.
The National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of
Education funded an extensive study that analyzed the considerable arts
education research literature in an attempt to resolve issues that
relate to state assessment/standards programs and arts education. What
emerged, Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and
Social Development (2002), is an excellent carefully selected
compendium of 62 studies that the task force considered best able to
help resolve the issue of the role of the arts in contemporary K-12
Critical Links examined research studies and position papers in dance,
drama, music, visual arts, and also studies that explored multi-arts
issues. Many of the studies were meta-analyses of a large number of
related studies. Educators interested in arts education and/or
assessment and curricular standards should certainly read this (free)
thoughtful and thought provoking analysis and discussion.
In essence, the project discovered that it’s currently difficult if not
impossible to identify substantive cognitive changes that occur quickly
as a result of exposure to the arts. It takes until approximately age
25 for our brain to reach maturity, and arts abilities and values (like
many other value-laden elements of life) emerge gradually.
Transfer of learning
from one cognitive domain to another isn’t a
one-way process (such as the belief that the arts must improve reading
or math scores in order to be of value). Rather transfer is a
reciprocal process in which all curricular areas in a good school
provide support for the mastery of other areas. We (your authors) think
it is silly to try to argue for art or music incorporation in the
curriculum because this might increase math scores. The arts are of
intrinsic value in their own right.
As suggested above, the arts aren’t about mastering specific measurable
units of information, but rather about aesthetically integrating
information and values—and since integration can occur in a wide
variety of ways and take many forms, simple assessment technologies
that seek precise measurements are inappropriate for the central
elements of a quality arts education program.
Possible Assessment Strategies
We thus have to think outside the one-size-fits-all assessment box with
the arts. In the previous article on social skills assessment, we
suggested that educators can objectively assess what students know and
believe about social behavior, but that the demonstration of social
skills requires subjective evaluation. Here, we argue that arts
assessment must function similarly.
Knowledge and Belief
. Students in arts programs should understand the
basic elements (such as the concepts, nature, and historical
perspective) of the arts field they’re studying. For example, drama
students should understand such basic concepts as blocking and
proscenium, music students should understand such concepts as scales
and timbre, visual arts students should understand perspective and the
Further it’s helpful for educators to know how students feel about
various elements of the arts—such as the kind of music and visual arts
expressions they prefer. Such attitudes and factual knowledge about the
arts can be objectively assessed via existing types of assessment
tools, although attitudes can’t be scored as true/false.
. The 62 studies discussed in Critical Links identified a number
of important specific areas of cognitive maturation that a high quality
arts education program supports. Although this is useful information
for educators beset by political pressures, the arts are really an
exploratory enterprise that allows our brain to reconstruct the
ordinary elements of our life and world into something extraordinary—a
celebration of the ordinary as it were. For those who purport to be
human, what’s more important in life and school than that? The arts
deal with factual information, in that the printed score is very clear
about what notes are to be played. But when a renowned pianist was once
asked to differentiate between a piano player and a pianist, he
responded that anyone can play the correct notes; it’s how you play the
notes that makes the difference. As indicated above, schools must have
artistically competent teachers to make such critical assessments. A
paper/pencil test can’t do it.
Some Roles of Computer Technology in the Arts
Computer technology makes it possible for children to compose, edit,
and perform (and/or have a computer perform) music. Somewhat similarly,
children can learn to use computer technology to do art, videography,
In these types of situations, children can learn to evaluate and
provide appropriate feedback on the quality of their own work and the
quality of their peer’s work. They can learn to edit their products to
make them better. A variety of high quality free software is available
In summary, computer technology is a powerful aid to creation and
performance in the arts. The technology exists to integrate such
instruction into the curriculum available to all students. However, it
takes well-trained teachers to facilitate student learning in these
Deasy, R. (editor) (2002). Critical links: Learning
in the arts and student academic and social development.
Publications—Council of Chief State School Officers, One Massachusetts
Ave, NW, Suite 700. Washington DC. 20001-1431. Retrieved1/17 2011 from
IAE-pedia (n.d.). Open source software packages. Retrieved 1/26/2011
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