In recent years, many school districts have turned to an increased focus on student assessments. At first, it seemed like just another heaping helping to an already full teaching plate. Then I realized that much of what was being required of all educators was something that art teachers already did—a lot—the administration was just putting it into words.
The new National Core Art Standards suggest that assessments should be imbedded in learning, which is the essence of an art project. The projects allow the students to apply their knowledge of art concepts instead of just reiterating them on a test. It is my opinion that application of learning is a more accurate and practical measure of understanding how to use an art concept than merely writing the words. I have had students that do poorly on the written tests, but create beautiful projects when they apply the concepts to their work. Therein lies the issue where some of the debate among art teachers centers—how to use a common assessment throughout the district with multiple teachers and multiple schools using multiple projects. The solution can be simply to have an assessment that is based on the standards and on the agreed upon student learning objectives. It could be used as a stand-alone test or used as a rubric, which could be applied to any project used to teach the standards and SLOs. This is definitely easier said than done!
There are many positives on my list of what can be gained from assessments in art education. I have found that assessments have made me more aware of my students’ needs. For districts involved with PLCs (Professional Learning Communities), this is essential to what we do in the classroom. The focus is on how students learn, not how we teach. If assessment results show that we need to change up some of our methods, it does not mean that we are doing something wrong, just that it was not the best approach for our students’ learning.
Assessments have also made me more aware of basics that may need re-teaching. For example, a recent CFA (Common Formative Assessment) that I gave to third grade on complementary colors revealed that the students that struggled with complementary colors did not have a grasp on primary colors. I might have overlooked that obvious data otherwise because of the assumption that all third graders certainly must know primary colors.
Assessments have also made me more aware of which of my teaching methods are most effective for retaining learning over time. Through my CFA’s, I found that more of my first graders were better at warm and cool colors than they were at primary and secondary colors. I use raps and lots of visuals for learning warm and cool colors, so I’m thinking I need to develop the same approach for primary and secondary colors. CFA data has shown me that the projects that begin with students experimenting with the media they will be using in the projects provide a better, more lasting understanding of the concepts than projects where I just explain the concepts to them.
Assessments also help me see which grade levels that projects are most appropriate for. If the whole class goes well beyond expectations with a CFA given during a project, perhaps the rigor is not there and it would be better suited for a younger grade level.
Assessments have helped me improvise and revise projects in progress to meet student needs. For example, after reviewing the results of the CFA on complementary colors, I revised a third grade drawing project to include mounting cutouts of the drawings on woven backgrounds of complementary colors to give added practice with that color concept.
Assessments have also helped me revise my expectations of how many projects I can plan on completing during the year. More is not better. I do fewer projects each year than when I first started teaching, but with more introduction, more experimentation, more enrichment activities, more collaborative work, and hopefully a deeper learning and understanding of the concepts.
My overall feeling about the increased focus on assessments is that, although time-consuming and not always easy to fit into our schedules, they do offer valuable information to help us focus on our students’ learning. The catch is, we have to look at the results not as a judgment on our teaching, but an assessment of our students’ learning. We have to be willing to use the data they give us without letting our pride get in the way by repeating our favorite lessons that are not producing the desired results in our students. We have to be willing to change our methods if collaboration with other teachers shows their methods are getting better results than ours. We have to be willing to use the assessment data to improve student learning, not as indicators or our proficiency as teachers. In the end, the primary focus of assessments must be the needs of students, not teachers.