Arts Education: Nothing Standard Here
After a recent successful community event, I was able to meet with different community business leaders, one of whom asked the ubiquitous question: How can we, as community leaders, help education? My answer likely surprised him when I said, “You can stop talking out of both sides of your mouth.” He looked at me somewhat stunned as I continued. “You can quit saying that you want us to produce problem-solvers, creative thinkers, and collaborative workers while also complaining about ‘school grades’ that are based on standardized tests that assess none of those things.” My point was simple: You need to demand better data. You need to critique the misuse of standardized test data.
This is exactly what Daniel Koretz does in his relatively new book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better (The University of Chicago Press, 2017). The Harvard education professor argues that after 30+ years of test-based accountability reform, the misuse of standardized test data has done more harm than good. Our standardized-test-fetish “shapes what is taught and how it is taught. … It determines which educators are rewarded, punished, and even fired.” His text is replete with well-researched examples of how this ill-fated phenomenon has gone awry, and along the way he explicitly details the collateral damage it has caused in America’s schools. But, you might be asking, what does this have to do with arts education?
Koretz contends that test-based accountability has created some nefarious educational problems. One of these issues is the narrowing of the curriculum. Some school districts have replaced arts instruction (or severely curtailed it) with more instruction in the tested subjects. Another problem Koretz notes is the proliferation of “bad test prep.” This is a narrow focusing on test prep strategies at the expense of other pedagogical approaches, meaning that creative thinking and problem-solving—as taught through art-making—are out the window. I would add to Koretz’s litany of issues arising from a misuse of test data is that it causes us to constrict our understanding of what education should be about; it provides an extremely limited view as to what counts “student achievement.” In most cases, it’s a score on a test that is lauded as the barometer of student success.
What can we, as proponents of arts education, do to counteract the onslaught of test-based accountability reform? For one thing, we can reject the idea of a single metric (a test score, a school “grade”) as the measurement of educational success (or failure). For example, instead of looking at a school grade to evaluate a school, how about asking for the percentage of students who take art (and other electives) in the school? What about the amount of scholarship dollars offered to the senior class? We need to demand better data. Finally, we must also educate others. I’ve stopped citing the research that indicates students who take arts in high school score higher on standardized tests—not because I don’t think it’s true, but instead because it feeds into the false narrative the education can be “measured” by a test score.
My conversations now typically turn to the value that arts education brings: students learn to work together, to solve problems, and to employ creative thinking in their learning—who doesn’t want employees who can do those things? As with the community leader I mentioned earlier, I believe its imperative that while we’re extolling the value of an education that’s rich in arts offerings, we need to explain how these opportunities make our students better students, better workers, and better people. And there’s nothing standardized about that.