I have been teaching instrumental music in the same small inner-city elementary school district for going on six years. I’ve worked at several schools in the district, some of which have been supportive of the arts, and some have been less than supportive. Even in the most supportive schools, however, my classes have always been considered not as important as the “real” subjects taught in the homerooms. Presenting research on links between test scores and participation in instrumental music fell on deaf ears. I frequently came to work to find that my classroom (on the stage) was being used for something, whether it was an assembly of some sort, school pictures, or a dance, and my objections were always met with a vague response detailing how next time they’d let me know in advance. Students were often kept from going to my classes because their general education teacher needed more time with them. This was deemed simply more important because they are tested in those other subjects and not in my class. At one of my schools, I was even denied paper and pencils because the office manager had to “save it for the teachers.”
Enter our state’s NCLB waiver and the MCESA assessments. Maricopa County Education Service Agency partnered with WestEd to come up with a series of brand new tests for non-tested subject areas such as Art, Music, Theater, PE and Dance. So far, they have only created a computer-based standardized type test, so it does not yet encompass practical learning such as actually playing an instrument or singing. Our students are tested at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. The results of the test will detail how effective we are as educators, and it will be wrapped into our evaluation score.
I have had three evaluations in five years of teaching. Two of those were for my M.Ed. requirements a few years back. Most years I simply get a filled out evaluation in my mailbox at work, which I am told I need to sign. Some years I don’t get anything at all. Administrators simply don’t feel the need to see if the band teacher is creating and implementing effective lessons. With MCESA’s new evaluation and assessment process, not only will I be evaluated by my principal multiple times, I will be evaluated by a instrumental music instruction specialist from MCESA. Even though school has only been in session for a month, this new assessment has already made a positive change in my classes. Just last week, I had an administrator look over my schedule and utter the words, “so, how can we get these band kids more time in your class?” My jaw just about hit the floor. Instead of seeing students for an average of half an hour a week as in the past, I am seeing my students for 45-60 minutes, 2-3 times a week. Students are no longer being held back from my classes as punishment for their behavior in another class or to get their worksheets done. Students will not be allowed to switch to another special areas class even if their parents complain. Attendance and grades are going to be put into the schools main electronic gradebook, instead of being printed out and put in teacher’s boxes for them to use or not.
I have heard colleagues talking about how nervous they were about these tests, and what a pain they were going to be, and how they don’t want to be one of the teachers who have to teach to the test. However, after looking over the testing outline, I realized it follows our core standards, which we should be teaching anyway. I am not in particular looking forward to the evaluations (who does?), but I know they are a very important step for us to get recognition as educators. Most of our non-arts colleagues don’t really know what goes on in our classroom. Occasional conversation on the topic has revealed they think we mostly play around with the kids while listening to music or singing. They have a hard time understanding that we have standards, we teach vocabulary, we do a lot of correlation to other subjects because the arts encompasses so much, and assess their learning every single class.
I believe that if these tests are regularly implemented for years as the other tests have been, then we will see the attitude of other teachers and administration change. We will no longer be simply a prep time for general education teachers, or a way for the kids to blow off a little steam before they get back to work. The arts will be full fledged, real, and valuable subjects, worthy of time, money, and respect.
Some questions to think about:
How can we assess the practical, more physical aspects of our subjects? Is it even possible to do without bias?
How can arts testing further arts education more?
What will this mean for the future of arts in education?
Is there any chance of making these assessments required nationally?
Will special area teachers welcome the extra accountability or resent it?
What do you think about assessment and evaluation for the arts? We welcome your thoughts in the comment section below.