Of late, there have been many posts regarding assessments in the arts and outrage over the possibility of high stakes testing that includes the arts. Below is my response to a post crying injustice and disapproval for assessments in the arts. Many assume this evaluation will take the form of multiple choice tests and some explore the alternate possibilities.
The idea of multiple-choice tests for anything is ridiculous, nonetheless, they are happening all the time. There are so many better ways to find out what a student has learned or knows and is able to do. Save the assessment of other subjects for another discussion since this one is confined to the arts.
I have many years’ experience as a performer, teacher, leader of musical groups and curriculum designer. I have helped to create and yes, had to use what existed for music assessments in a district that uses these tests as a part of the teacher evaluation process. I have been an examiner for the International Baccalaureate Organization in music for a long time. I have been a judge in a variety of musical contests and competitions. All of those experiences require me to evaluate the demonstration of knowledge or ability by students at a wide variety of ages, skill, and stages of development. In addition, having two performance degrees in music, I was a participant in many International competitions and evaluations. I am not touting my qualifications, just giving that as a background for my opinion.
I would like to see assessments in the arts. I believe this practice will lead to the credibility of the arts as important core subjects. At the same time, the idea of assessing them through multiple-choice tests is, as I said previously, absurd. These days, memorizing facts to repeat back serves little purpose. Rote learning of music, although sometimes necessary, seems to me to also serve little purpose. Facts are quickly forgotten and rote music learning does little to enhance skills as a musician or critical thinker. Critical thinking essay questions that ask a student to discuss the place, purpose and role of music in society and how it fits into culture are appropriate questions. Describe what you hear — are there patterns? Mood? Rhythm? Paint a picture? This questioning encompasses all the arts, takes some inquiry and thought, and creates an opportunity for students to show what they have learned from their experience. Students can show how music is relevant to their life. In addition, understanding of all the career possibilities in the arts is important.
As to the standards that express “experience music” and “create music,” I think teachers are or should be always assessing where their students are. In addition, I have used some one on one time, or small group time, to work with each-yes I have done this-to see if they can do some basic skills with sight-reading, technique, etc. I am opposed to a teacher who sits at the piano and bangs out the parts or plays along and does this over and over until it gets better. I have seen this more times than not, all of you out there be as defensive a you want, it’s true. The teacher who does this can’t hear anything and never bothers to dissect the music to its inner parts so that a student’s ability to perform actually advances. This method is just rote learning. Work on what is not working – the “hard parts.” Teaching students through sight-reading the structure and components of music, although slower, will reap rewards in musical proficiency. Understanding how the music fits into a social and historical context should also be learned. Who were the artists at the time? What did buildings look like? How did people dress? You get the point.
Many of my blog posts discuss the importance of the arts and including them in an integrated curriculum, essentially raising their status from “fun” and extras” to tools for learning. I explore assessment possibilities and how to make them appropriate and not just meaningless exercises to stress students out. No need to repeat myself here.
Life is an ongoing evaluation. No matter what you do, someone is evaluating you all the time. Not too much to be done about it. If you are getting your hair cut, you are thinking, is he doing a good job? Not so great, I don’t think I will go back there. This assessment happens in every thing we do each day. So, slam me if you will. It is not my purpose to stress kids out. It is the reverse. I want kids to engage and love what they do and as a result, show me what they know. I want to see the status of the arts as most important to a quality education that will create innovators and engaged students to participate in society. We need audiences for the arts in the future and part of this comes from raising the level of how we view the arts. If we teach how to discern and appropriately criticize, we place value on the medium.
Measuring much of the arts experience is intangible. You like it or you don’t, it makes me feel good or it doesn’t. The truth is that without the tools of expression, one cannot clearly express. If you have something to say, you need the tools to do it. Those tools can be measured. There is always an extra factor that is hard to define, the “magic” that maybe cannot be learned. Although that is a part of the total package, musicianship, understanding and creative expression is quantifiable, the criteria needs to be specific and different from the norm. Giving structure and definition to what a student needs to know and be able to do helps them do that.