Forget the SAT, This New Standardized Test Measures Artistic Ability

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up,” Pablo Picasso once famously mused. These words are emblazoned on the arts education webpage of the New Hampshire Department of Education, a leader in the charge to reduce the rush of high-stakes standardized testing in schools. Any way you score them, those bubble sheets can’t capture the potential young artists and creatives hold. This spring, the state put forth a pilot arts testing program cultivating alternative ways to measure creative learning, following its similar programs already in place for math, science, and language arts. But can these reimagined assessments (say drawing and reflecting on a self-portrait) actually push forward teaching and learning in the arts—and aspiring Picassos into careers?

The initiative is the latest step in a new model for education that moves away from standardardized tests as a sole measure of accountability and instead focuses on measuring students’ abilities in ways more akin to how they will eventually be measured in the real world. (New Hampshire is one of a small number of states, including Michigan and Florida, exploring this method for the arts.) The arts tests were developed by a cadre of teachers across the state. They score students through a series of tasks that more clearly map onto the actual process of arts disciplines.

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“It sits much better with art than a multiple choice test, because that can only give you a small slice of information about what students can do,” says Marcia McCaffrey, an arts consultant for the New Hampshire Department of Education. “Those are really about what they know, and not what they can do.” In a 21st century armed with iPhones and computers that can answer our every question, memorizing knowledge solely for test-taking is already deemed by some an outmoded skill. But for fields in which creative problem-solving, never mind artistic expression itself, are most highly valued, it’s downright antithetical.

Instead, art students’ marks are based on real, artistic output, from dance to ceramics. Teachers follow step-by-step instructions for administering and scoring assignments that yield tangible evidence of student learning and record the entire creative process in written detail. The findings allow for educators to see where students are excelling, where they can improve, and how, as teachers, they might close these gaps to help the students reach their artistic goals.

At its core, the program is an opportunity to inform the teaching and learning process. And this stretches far beyond the benefit to individual students and their instructors. Perhaps even more critically, the findings become fodder for a frank comparison between schools, which is where an equitable and actionable conversation about the state of arts education begins. “Comparing schools raises a conversation about why,” says McCaffrey.

This data allows schools to size up resources, socioeconomic factors, cultures, capital expenditure—why do some students perform better than others? How do you compare a student who has access to art class five days a week with one who only takes it on Mondays, a classroom lined with shelves of ample art supplies to one filled with students who are deprived even the most basic implements with which to express themselves, or art teachers afforded varying levels of training? By gathering structured data and then asking these questions, the New Hampshire Department of Education and others hope to help ensure that the narrative played out by the scores can lead to real and positive change.

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In a society where creative expression is increasingly valued in nearly every aspect of culture and industry, it’s become crucial that we define a rubric to fairly quantify creative work and empower young creatives. For example, a 2010 study by IBM found that 60% of CEOs polled cite creativity as the most important leadership quality over the next five years. “There are a lot of signals out there that point to creativity being more and more valued in the school setting,” says McCaffrey. “This work helps promote the value of art in education, because art supports creative thinking.”

Creative thinking crops up in science labs, in the unraveling of calculus equations, and in the nimble hands of computer coders. And thus it’s more important than ever for young brains to have the freedom to expand, and to embrace artistic impulses. “Creative problem-solving is really a part of all the work that we do in the 21st century,” says McCaffrey. “The arts place higher value on it than other content areas, and hey, if our day is due, I’m happy for that.”


—Molly Gottschalk