Information Age Education
   Issue Number 58
January, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

The Information Age Education web site now includes a blog. Access the blog and comment on blog entries at

You may find the following blog entry to be particularly interesting: Creating academic standards that that may be inappropriate and unattainable.

nothing measurable can be alive;
nothing which is not alive can be art;
nothing which cannot be art is true;
and everything untrue doesn’t matter a very good God damn.
e. e. cummings (1940)

Assessing Student Achievement in Difficult to Assess Curricular Areas: The Arts

The previous article Assessing Student Achievement in Difficult to Assess Curricular Areas: Social Knowledge and Skills discussed the complexities and possibilities of K-12 assessment programs that include social knowledge, beliefs, and skills. This article explores similar issues in the arts.

Current school assessment programs focus on factual knowledge and skills that can be reduced to a true/false dichotomy. For example, chair is spelled c-h-a-i-r, and no other spelling in English is correct. Even if we used various fonts or writing implements, we would still have to spell it c-h-a-i-r. An assessment program that requires this kind of precise response consistency can’t effectively assess the arts.

The arts use a variety of approaches to aesthetically enhance objects, places, events, and cognitive processes. They celebrate ordinary objects and processes by turning them into something extraordinary. For example, woodworkers can artistically create many different kinds of chairs that have from several or no legs (pillow chairs) plus a wide variety of seating surfaces, backs, and decorative elements.  Artists can include chairs in paintings, photographs, and stage sets. Asking which chair or depiction of a chair is correct is thus a meaningless exercise.

The arts are thus unique expressions that respond to the variety of preferences that people have. If it were possible to objectively and precisely evaluate artistic expression, it wouldn’t be art but rather reproducible craft. There’s certainly nothing wrong with craft (a manufactured chair) but it’s not art (a hand-made chair)—even though both crafted and artistic chairs can be beautiful and utilitarian.

Or consider an orchestra that plays the same concert program on successive evenings. The conductor, players, instruments, auditorium, and printed score are the same. But the two concerts will be subtly to significantly different. If one of the concerts (an artistic performance) is recorded, and the recording is carefully reproduced (a crafted product), each playing of the recording will sound the same to most listeners.

Arts assessment thus isn’t objective—in that it compares the product/performance with an absolute value of excellence. It also isn’t comparative—in that it doesn’t objectively compare the product/performance with those produced by others or by the same artist at different times or in different settings.  Arts assessment is a subjective assessment of a unique expression— and that’s why educators have had so much trouble in developing arts assessment programs in K-12 school settings that seek reproducible objectivity.

Arts performances and products are obviously evaluated. Critics do it all the time. But their criticism is subjective, and two competent critics may differ considerably on their assessment of the same artistic performance or product. The value of such critical assessment is thus dependent on the experience and credibility of the critic, and not solely on some external objective measure (such as that the orchestra played 98% of the notes correctly, or the violists were the busiest). Critics use such vague terms as exciting, soaring, perfunctory, and mournful to subjectively applaud or question the choices the conductor and musicians made, and readers get the general idea.

A decreasing number of precollege teachers with professional training and critical competence in the arts may thus be the most serious loss in the diminution of arts education programs. It’s foolish to demand credible assessment in the arts and then to eliminate the educators who were trained to do it.

The National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Education funded an extensive study that analyzed the considerable arts education research literature in an attempt to resolve issues that relate to state assessment/standards programs and arts education. What emerged, Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development (2002), is an excellent carefully selected compendium of 62 studies that the task force considered best able to help resolve the issue of the role of the arts in contemporary K-12 education.

Critical Links examined research studies and position papers in dance, drama, music, visual arts, and also studies that explored multi-arts issues. Many of the studies were meta-analyses of a large number of related studies. Educators interested in arts education and/or assessment and curricular standards should certainly read this (free) thoughtful and thought provoking analysis and discussion.

In essence, the project discovered that it’s currently difficult if not impossible to identify substantive cognitive changes that occur quickly as a result of exposure to the arts. It takes until approximately age 25 for our brain to reach maturity, and arts abilities and values (like many other value-laden elements of life) emerge gradually.

Transfer of learning from one cognitive domain to another isn’t a one-way process (such as the belief that the arts must improve reading or math scores in order to be of value). Rather transfer is a reciprocal process in which all curricular areas in a good school provide support for the mastery of other areas. We (your authors) think it is silly to try to argue for art or music incorporation in the curriculum because this might increase math scores. The arts are of intrinsic value in their own right.

As suggested above, the arts aren’t about mastering specific measurable units of information, but rather about aesthetically integrating information and values—and since integration can occur in a wide variety of ways and take many forms, simple assessment technologies that seek precise measurements are inappropriate for the central elements of a quality arts education program.

Possible Assessment Strategies

We thus have to think outside the one-size-fits-all assessment box with the arts. In the previous article on social skills assessment, we suggested that educators can objectively assess what students know and believe about social behavior, but that the demonstration of social skills requires subjective evaluation. Here, we argue that arts assessment must function similarly.

Knowledge and Belief. Students in arts programs should understand the basic elements (such as the concepts, nature, and historical perspective) of the arts field they’re studying. For example, drama students should understand such basic concepts as blocking and proscenium, music students should understand such concepts as scales and timbre, visual arts students should understand perspective and the color wheel.

Further it’s helpful for educators to know how students feel about various elements of the arts—such as the kind of music and visual arts expressions they prefer. Such attitudes and factual knowledge about the arts can be objectively assessed via existing types of assessment tools, although attitudes can’t be scored as true/false.

Skills. The 62 studies discussed in Critical Links identified a number of important specific areas of cognitive maturation that a high quality arts education program supports. Although this is useful information for educators beset by political pressures, the arts are really an exploratory enterprise that allows our brain to reconstruct the ordinary elements of our life and world into something extraordinary—a celebration of the ordinary as it were. For those who purport to be human, what’s more important in life and school than that? The arts deal with factual information, in that the printed score is very clear about what notes are to be played. But when a renowned pianist was once asked to differentiate between a piano player and a pianist, he responded that anyone can play the correct notes; it’s how you play the notes that makes the difference. As indicated above, schools must have artistically competent teachers to make such critical assessments. A paper/pencil test can’t do it.

Some Roles of Computer Technology in the Arts

Computer technology makes it possible for children to compose, edit, and perform (and/or have a computer perform) music. Somewhat similarly, children can learn to use computer technology to do art, videography, and animation.

In these types of situations, children can learn to evaluate and provide appropriate feedback on the quality of their own work and the quality of their peer’s work. They can learn to edit their products to make them better. A variety of high quality free software is available (IAE-pedia, n.d.).

In summary, computer technology is a powerful aid to creation and performance in the arts. The technology exists to integrate such instruction into the curriculum available to all students. However, it takes well-trained teachers to facilitate student learning in these areas.


Deasy, R. (editor) (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Publications—Council of Chief State School Officers, One Massachusetts Ave, NW, Suite 700. Washington DC. 20001-1431. Retrieved1/17 2011 from

IAE-pedia (n.d.). Open source software packages. Retrieved 1/26/2011 from

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