The creative art educator wrestles with the task of constructing authentic assessment items for artistic decision-making and artistic behaviors. Charles Dorn, Stanley Madeja & F. Robert Sabol describe the task and its implications in Assessing Expressive Learning (2004):
Alternative assessment calls for authentic performances, which include real-life decisions, such as the behavior of aestheticians, architects, art historians and critics, artists such as folk artists, people working in all forms who confront art in their daily lives, and people whose advocational activities relate to art. Authentic learning in art implies purposeful, meaningful application of relevant information, as opposed to the acquiring of factual knowledge for its own sake. (p. 98)
But does the rest of their project evidence fully authentic assessment, in which student work most resembles the decision-making of those in the arts beyond school? Seeing art as an “ill-defined field,” the project limits students’ decision-making within the confines of teacher-constructed assignments “in order to insure that what it is they want students to know and do is at the center of every instructional assessment.” (p.100) Performance tasks designed for the project offer little room for top-level decisions, such as how much time to spend on a work of art, or when to abandon it and take the work in a different direction.
Ill-defined or multifariously defined?
Is art an ill-defined field? Are other fields well defined or is this a distinctive characteristic of visual art? I think the authors describe the field as ill-defined in the context of setting learning standards for all ages and considering how the learning objectives early in school might set a foundation for later more complex learning objectives. Some of the most significant work art outside of school, however, has been meaningful in part because it regresses, backing away from existing knowledge. Artists must sometimes follow a path others see as backward, abandoning accepted know-how (and “know-that”) in order to move forward.
So how is this different from science, history, or music, for a few examples? Eminent scientists, historians, and musicians also dismantle existing knowledge, and we follow them to a new paradigm, but I see three main differences:
- New knowledge in visual art coexists with old art knowledge in our society. Society doesn’t unify around an aesthetic proposition that might drive economics, education, and government policy.
- Many artistic paths are valid. No one line of artistic inquiry is considered current, and each path has its own concepts and procedures distinct from others.
- Economic prospects are greater for scientists, historians, and musicians who maintain generally accepted knowledge than for visual artists to do the same in their discipline.
Visual art is no less defined than other disciplines, but it is less unified. We like it that way, so why fight it? The implication of the discipline’s multi-directionality is that authentic approaches in art education must accommodate the multifarious aesthetics.
Serious art education, then, helps students to learn to make top-level decisions about what direction to take and when to change directions. What should follow is not a linear definition of art knowledge to be acquired in school, but many well defined branches with bridges between them. The risk of selecting one direction as the school-preferred standard is that school art learning will lose validity when compared to out-of-school art, and authenticity will suffer.
So what does assessment look like when we embrace art’s multidirectionality? Art teachers may say that if students had art class in school every day every year, just as they experience math or reading, the discipline might better follow a well-defined path. Even so there would be a need to design assessment for students who would make top-level aesthetic choices, authentically, that carry them away from the lesson plan.
Samuel Hope (2004), p. 93) calls the diverse trajectories of artistic inquiry “artistic and intellectual traditions of work in and about visual form, each of which with its own habits of mind, approaches to achievement, and history.” Given this complexity in the field of art education, authentic assessment must accommodate each tradition with measures appropriate to distinct habits of mind, approaches to achievement, and historical contrext.
Towards specific objectives amid choices
One solution is to reach for higher level learning objectives from among the overarching performance standards and anchor standards. Anchor standard #1 of the National Core Art Standards, “Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work,” is an example of standards that are general enough to apply to any artistic investigation. The studio habits of the Studio Thinking Framework (Hetland, 2013) are also used in art class as overarching learning objectives related to artistic dispositions. Yet more specific learning objectives are needed in order to provide more specific understanding of the learning that happens in art class, whatever direction it may go.
For specific, authentic, multidirectional assessment, art educators would have to prepare learning sequences that align with many directions of artistic inquiry, one for each direction a student may choose to pursue in the wide world of visual art.
In the Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) art classroom, students choose directions for learning. Learning centers become “silent lesson plans” (p. 15, Hathaway, 2013) including instruction, studio materials, and assessment. Although much of the assessment in TAB classrooms is dispositional, there are examples of assessments that focus on product as well.
Authentic, product-centered assessments for choice-based art programs are aligned with the work of artists outside of school and set a straightforward standard for mastery that varies by developmental level. One example of a product-centered assessment in a TAB classroom is the Attachment Test, invented by Diane Jaquith (2015) in the early 2000’s. In order for elementary students to learn to experiment and know the capabilities of materials as an artist experiments and knows them, Jaquith looks for competency demonstrated on the Attachment Test. Criteria for a product to show mastery include:
- Count materials and attachment methods:
- The minimum number of materials are used in the product. Third-graders must use 6 different materials, fourth-graders must use 8, fifth-graders must use 10.
- The minimum number of attachment methods are used in the product. Third-graders must use three, fourth-graders must use four, fifth-graders must use five.
- The object is stable (nothing falls off when shaken).
- The work shows artistic thinking.
As with the best authentic assessments, this test empowers students:
Everyone who tries the Attachment Test passes by summoning his or her curiosity, patience, and playfulness. Just as a deep-water test determines which swimmers may swim out to the raft, the Attachment Test acknowledges students who have practiced with materials and are now empowered with a toolbox of strategies for future endeavors. (p.13)