An Unfinished Canvas: A Review of Large-Scale Assessment in K-12 Arts Education


Stites, R. & Malin, H. (2008). An unfinished canvas. A review of large-scale assessment in K–12 arts education. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.


Although California’s Education Code calls for all students to be offered a course of study in the four arts disciplines (dance, music, theater, and visual arts), findings from An Unfinished Canvas reveal a large gap between policy and practice. California’s State Board of Education adopted content standards for the visual and performing arts in 2001, but the Education Code neither requires schools to follow state arts content standards (Section 60605.1b) nor mandates any student assessment in the arts (Section 60605.1c). Recent experience has shown that large-scale assessment used for the purpose of accountability can be effective as a force for implementing standards-based K–12 curriculum and instruction in mathematics, science, social studies, and English/language arts (Pedersen, 2007; Herman, 2007). It is not at all clear, however, whether large-scale assessment could or should be used to support the implementation of K–12 standards-based arts education (Schultz, 2002; Mishook & Kornhaber, 2006). On the one hand, the absence of large-scale arts assessment in California’s K–12 accountability system might weaken the status of the visual and performing arts as core subjects in that curriculum. On the other hand, there are few models for large-scale accountability assessment in the arts and only a few states have attempted to implement them.

The development and implementation of effective large-scale assessment in the arts are challenging on many fronts. Some arts educators are concerned that important aspects of achievement and performance in the arts may be subverted by standards and assessments that presuppose that “artistic activity and its products can be deconstructed into discrete components” (Boughton, 2004, p. 589). One-time, on-demand assessments may capture only a small part of what is taught and learned in the arts. Judgment about the quality of student work, especially in the performing arts, may require “real-time” observations and multiple judges. Authentic assessment involving evaluation of extended artistic performances and complex visual and musical products presents unique logistical challenges for large-scale assessment (Myford & Sims-Gunzenhauser, 2004). Even with authentic assessment, efforts to achieve reliability may lead to measurement of things that arts educators do not really care to measure—focusing measures on “the quality of work rather than on the quality of the mind developed through the educational process” (L. Hetland, personal communication, June 15, 2008).

This paper provides a review of the status of large-scale arts assessments and current practice in statewide arts assessment for the purpose of K–12 education accountability. We begin with an overview of the recent history of developments in standards, assessment, and accountability in arts education. Next, we describe and discuss the strengths and limitations of several influential approaches to large-scale arts assessment, the NAEP Arts Assessment and two large-scale portfolio
assessment models, the IB arts portfolio assessment and the AP Studio Art portfolio program. Then follows a discussion of the very different approaches to standards-based arts assessment adopted by the five states that currently have active large-scale arts assessment programs: Kentucky, Washington, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Minnesota.

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