The Trifecta of Standards, Accountability, and Assessment
Last February, when my fellow Arts Education Council members and I agreed on “the trifecta of standards, accountability and assessment” as the topic of AFTA’s September arts education blog salon, I noticed how ominous those words sound. Sitting in the council meeting, I pictured a pitchfork stuck in the ground, with the three prongs of standards, accountability and assessment serving a dark warning to any arts educators who dare get close to it.
I happen to think that standards and assessment systems can be good things, so the fact these thoughts crossed my mind is testament to how much baggage the words carry, particularly in the arts. They are also, for better or worse, here to stay. Recognizing they are tools that can be applied well or applied poorly, how does an arts education community begin incorporating those tools into practice in a meaningful way?
Last year, in Los Angeles County, we decided to try and start a broad conversation about arts assessment. We invited the research firm WestEd, which a few years earlier had conducted a comprehensive study of the state of arts assessment across the United States, to deliver a full-day seminar on assessment strategies, open to as many people as we could comfortably cram in a large meeting room.
We also asked WestEd to deliver smaller, more hands-on workshop sessions focused on rubrics. Why rubrics? We conducted an informal poll of school districts applying to us for matching funds for artist residencies, asking in which areas of assessment they felt they needed the most support. Rubrics were by far and away the most popular answer.
This was the first time that Arts for All had ever offered broad-scale professional development on arts assessment, and the first time in a long while that we had offered professional development to arts organizations and school districts simultaneously. How did we do in helping our constituents sort through all that baggage?
As it turns out, different constituents were carrying different things, and some bags proved surprisingly difficult to pry off their backs. In no particular order, here are some major take-aways from last year’s effort:
Assessing student acquisition of knowledge and skills in the arts is different from assessing student expression and creativity.
WestEd began the full-day seminar explaining the difference between measuring students’ knowledge in the arts (i.e. their ability to identify a certain playwright, or the elements of visual art) and measuring their skills in the arts (i.e. how well they can memorize and perform a scene from a play, or use the elements of visual art to create a compelling self-portrait). Different kinds of assessment tools lend themselves to different kinds of measurement. You wouldn’t necessarily use the same tool to measure arts knowledge as you would to measure arts skill – and neither really gets to creativity. Some things are easier to assess than others. Starting with what is easy is not enough, but it is a start.
School-based arts educators often feel more at ease creating and talking about assessment tools than their counterparts at arts organizations.
When we embarked on this work we thought of our school districts as our primary target for professional development. This decision was heavily influenced by logistics – school districts were our direct grantees last year, and therefore our most direct points of contact. As the work progressed, however, it became clear that school district representatives had a deeper pre-existing understanding of basic assessment mechanisms than their arts partners, and felt much more comfortable diving in and creating tools from scratch. Because our decision to focus on rubrics was driven by the school districts, who already had a basic level of knowledge, we didn’t provide enough varied entry points for teaching artists and arts organizations.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” assessment for the arts – nor should there be.
As WestEd staff repeated over and over and over again, “Just because a tool is good does not meant it is good for you.” We focused on rubrics because our school districts asked us to, but as became clear once we added teaching artists and arts organizations into the mix, rubrics should not be the go-to tool in all cases. Depending on the structure and goals of a particular arts education program, checklists, portfolios and observation protocols may be better suited to capturing what teachers and teaching artists need to know.
The conversation about assessment was welcomed. It was also not enough.
Across the board, seminar and workshop participants reacted positively to the professional development we offered, with a whopping 98.5% of seminar attendees indicating a desire to attend follow-up sessions on assessment. Assessing arts education shifted in the mind of our community, at least in a small way, from a frightening, overwhelming idea to one that seems useful and provokes curiosity. We plan to continue supporting that shift through further collaboration with WestEd and offering a greater number and variety of assessment workshops to our community throughout the coming year.
I hope that for that national arts education community, the “trifecta” of standards, accountability and assessment can shift in a similar way from something to be feared to something that can push us to improve our work. As one seminar participant put it, “Teaching without assessment is just talking. I like talking, but teaching is better.” Well put. Can the daunting trifecta help keep us focused on the teaching? I think it can, provided we all take a moment in our respective communities to sort through the baggage and hold on to what is useful.