“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.