Assessing arts education

December 14, 2004

MARYLAND HAS long been a leader in arts education. For 15 years now, it has required that students earn a credit in fine arts before receiving a high school diploma, recognizing the arts as an integral part of the academic experience as well as an essential part of life. Now the state is trying to be a leader in measuring how well students are doing in the arts. To do that, the state Department of Education needs some additional money next year to support its ongoing effort to develop a fine arts assessment for middle school students.

The state's leadership in arts education has included the development of standards for dance, music, theater and the visual arts, for elementary, middle and high schools, adopted by the State Board of Education in 1997. Since then, the state has slowly begun the arduous process of trying to determine how well students are meeting those standards. In the past five years, the Education Department has developed a tool kit as a step toward creating an assessment or performance measure that all eighth-graders in the state would have to pass. For the upcoming budget, the department is seeking an additional $685,000 to continue the assessment development process.

Why is a fine arts assessment so important? For starters, it helps improve teaching and the curriculum. Look at the experience of Wicomico County, which has jumped ahead of other counties and even the state in evaluating its students in the past two years. Gary Beauchamp, fine arts supervisor for the county's public schools, and his teachers describe a circular phenomenon: As teachers examine the state fine arts standards to identify appropriate testing areas, they collaborate to shore up the curriculum. As students then prepare for and take the assessment, teachers can figure out whether the test really measures student comprehension and ability, and they can adjust the assessment and curriculum accordingly. In that way, the assessment becomes an important way to improve instruction in the arts.

Another reason is the national testing fever that threatens to strangle educational creativity. The federal No Child Left Behind law already requires that students be tested in math and reading. Schools that cannot show yearly improvements stand to lose students -- and funding. Because testing in subjects such as science and fine arts is being phased in later, many schools are cutting back in those areas in order to maintain or improve math and reading scores. Mandated tests, then, can help ensure the viability of arts education.

That seems perverse, but it's the new reality. The sooner Maryland can assess students in fine arts, the better it can secure the place of fine arts in the education tapestry.

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