The NEA has required applicants to address assessment of student learning in their applications to the NEA’s Art Works Arts Education category for many years. In our guidelines we state: “The National Endowment for the Arts is committed to rigorous assessment of learning in the arts. High quality assessment of knowledge and skills is critical to improving arts learning and instruction.” In particular, we ask how applicant organizations use assessment aligned with state or national arts standards to measure learning.
Throughout the course of reviewing applications over the years, panelists and NEA staff observed that many applicants with wonderful projects serving children and youth were not clearly articulating their assessment methods. There seemed to be some organizations deeply committed to, and already expert at, authentic assessment of learning in the arts, but the majority of applicants spoke about assessment in broad terms, mixing up program evaluation and assessment, or citing assessment methods that did not seem authentic to the arts, for example mixing up the word “test” with assessment. Were people really assessing, say, music performance using a pencil and paper test? And what were organizations doing with the results of their assessment efforts; were they using the data to improve teaching, deepen learning, inform program design?
In 2008 the National Endowment for the Arts partnered with WestEd to conduct a study on assessment of student learning in the arts. We set out to find out current trends and promising practices in the field of arts education. The questions we sought to answer were: who is doing high quality assessment of learning in the arts for students K-12? What tools and methods are they using? We hoped we would have a robust list of assessment tools and methods after the study, which we could vet and share with the field. We were confident that the field of arts education had largely gotten over the fear of assessment and was poised to embrace it.
WestEd interviewed key leaders in the field, conducted a nationwide survey, and did an extensive literature search on the subject. They collected feedback from arts specialists in schools, staff and teaching artists from arts and cultural organizations, staff from state arts agencies and state departments of education, arts researchers and evaluators, and more. The bottom line of the findings of the study were perhaps not shocking, but still disconcerting. The good news was the field indeed IS ready to embrace assessment, however, very few high quality assessment tools exist that are publicly available and ready for adaptation by other arts educators. In addition, very few arts educators learned about effective assessment, and people were more likely to Google “arts assessment” than anything else because they didn’t know where to get their hands on good assessment tools and methods. (The report, released in 2011, can be found here on our website).
To discuss these results, in February 2012 the NEA hosted a day-long round table discussion on the topic of standards and assessment in arts learning for students. At the convening, then-Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education Jim Shelton offered remarks about the NEA assessment report, “This report… says our schools, our systems our teachers need support …states all across the country are doing this work, not together, with limited resources… the systems they are relying upon are fragmented.” He then challenged the participants in the room: “These are all problems that can be solved…frankly be solved by most of the people and organizations represented here today.” (This convening is archived here on our website).
The NEA has taken steps to contribute to this problem solving— not just by conducting the study and the convening. Starting with fiscal year 2012 grantees, all Arts Education grantees must submit assessment tools and a description of assessment methods with their final report (reports with assessment information will trickle in over the next few years, so it is too early to draw conclusions from those final reports as yet). Other recommendations in the report included forming Professional Learning Communities and providing professional development to arts educators on effective assessment in the arts. We are happy to support partners in the field already doing this work, such as the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE). Our current grant to SADAE project to increase arts assessment literacy for arts educators all across the country through online and in-person professional development. This effort will help prepare the field for the release of National Coalition of Core Arts Standards’ revised arts education national standards (supported in part by another NEA grant).
There is more work to be done. A strong recommendation in the assessment report was a message to the field: stop duplicating assessment efforts; stop recreating the wheel. I have spoken at several meetings about the NEA’s new Arts Education strategic plan, which will be made public later this year: one of the goals we set forth for our agency is to “leverage investments for deeper impact.” Which made makes me wonder, besides the work our agency has undertaken, and in light of the progress already made since our assessment study by many of our partners, how are organizations using assessment of student learning in the arts to deepen the impact of their programs? How are YOU leveraging assessment of learning for deeper impact?