New Hampshire has eschewed multiple-choice questions on art tests altogether in favor of open-ended tasks that require students to make or perform something. “You want to create a task that allows kids to demonstrate in their own way what they know and can do,” said Marcia McCaffrey, an arts-education consultant for the New Hampshire Department of Education. “An assessment can also allow kids creativity if it’s designed in the right way.”
The arts are just one of many subjects for which the state is developing so-called “performance assessments”—tests that are really multi-step assignments that require students to solve a problem or produce something. English, math, and science performance tests may someday be a mandatory part of the state’s accountability system; arts assessments will likely remain voluntary.
McCaffrey and a group of 11 teachers from around the state spent months developing the music and visual arts tests, which evaluate students on a scale of one to four. Shortly after school let out in June, the teachers met in Concord to share their students’ test work and begin the complicated process of reducing subjective impressions to a single number. As they discovered, that’s not so simple.
Sarah Boudreau and Justina Austin, elementary-school art teachers, commandeered a separate room and laid out about two dozen self-portraits drawn by their fourth-grade students. They needed to agree on a score of one, two, three, or four for each piece, based on predetermined grading criteria, such as drawing skills and oil-pastel blending technique.
“This one you thought could be a one,” Boudreau said. “I thought two.”
“I just thought the control was lacking,” Austin replied.
They paused over another piece that they had both awarded a three, scoring guidelines in hand, and justified why they hadn’t marked the girl down despite the unrealistic placement of her eyes in the middle of her forehead. The scoring system calls for students to use “deliberate placement”—but who were Boudreau and Austin to say the choice was not an artistically deliberate one?
As the elementary-school art teachers discussed whether they needed to tweak the grading system, music teachers in another classroom struggled to distill improvised student performances on the recorder into one of the four numbers. The guidelines called for rating the students on pitch, tone, and rhythm.
They debated how much minor imperfections mattered. Could a student receive a four if they made any errors in tone, for instance? But the bigger issue for the teacher Virginia Avery was how to combine those three separate measurements into an overall score. She worried not everyone would do that the same way.
“You’re just coming up with a number to fill a box, and that angers me,” she told her colleagues. “I don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘This kid is a two.’”