Waiting For Godot: If You Test it They Will Come

Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot): “But that is not the question. Why are we here, that is the question.
And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in
this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for
Godot to come.”

Margaret Spellings: “We measure what we treasure.”

Diane Ravitch: “How do you measure friendship, character, integrity?” “…you do some things not for economic reward, and not because they are utilitarian, but because they are right.”

More and more, I am hearing that since we teach what we test, the solution to equitable distribution of arts education, particularly at the urban school district level where the equity issue is most pronounced, is to create arts tests. No, not bubble-type standardized tests, but rather performance-based assessments that include a broad range of measures, comparable from school-to-school, from student-to-student.

If you want to see what this could look like, there is at least one state that has put much of this in place and you can click here to access the State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Arts Performance Assessments.

The Evergreen State’s approach is an example of what the tests might look like in a regime that is relatively common across a state, and standards-based. That’s one key component of what I might call the arts accountability movement. Actually, that’s two components of the Arts Accountability Movement, in that it is both assessment and standards.

What if all the components were in place? Would it be an answer to those district leaders who have said they could not make the arts central unless there were measurable outcomes?

Let’s look at the other pieces of the arts accountability puzzle.

Another component is a common curriculum, or at least a common curriculum framework. Let’s take New York City’s Blueprint in the Arts as a very good example of a curriculum framework for the arts. The Chicago Guide for Teaching and Learning in the Arts is yet another very fine example.

And that’s not all, let’s add a special diploma endorsement that would signify having taken a prescribed number of advance courses in the arts and having passed a special performance exam. Again, New York City has a good example here: The Chancellor’s Endorsed Diploma. Last year, 857 high school students garnered the special endorsement, taking a test reputed to be tough even for those graduating arts colleges.

So, what would the ideal look like, if we one was to go the accountability route to ensuring the arts. And, do we really believe that such a program would flip the switch for ensuring that every child has access to a quality education that includes the arts.

In New York State there have been discussions about putting together the following pieces:

1. A common statewide curriculum, that could be modeled after the New York City blueprints or developed by notable organizations that would come together to create it.

2. A statewide Regents exam for the arts.

In New York State, there is a group of high school exams required to receive a High School Diploma. The Board of Regents are the governance body for education in New York State. To receive a regular high school diploma, students in New York State
must pass, with a score of 65 or higher, five Regents Exams: Integrated
Algebra (or Math A), Global History and Geography, U.S. History and
Government, Comprehensive English, and any one science regents. To
receive an Advanced Regents Diploma, students must also pass an
additional Regents science exam, (Earth Science, Chemistry, or Physics),
an additional math exam (Geometry, Algebra 2/ Trigonometry, or Math B),
and a foreign language exam.

The Regents Exam for the Arts would be designed as a replacement exam, for example, you could replace the Global History exam with one of the arts exams, presuming that there would be an exam developed in all four of the official art forms (music, visual arts, dance and theater). N.B., the strategy is to implement the exam as a replacement exam, rather than as a test required of all students.

3. New Standards in the Arts. The new arts standards would be developed in a manner that was coordinated closely with the statewide curriculum, and the Arts Regents Exams.

4. State issued common assessments at key grades, most likely 4 and 8.

5. Requisite Professional Development. After all, you can’t roll out such a test without support for teachers and administrators.

So, what do you think? Will this move the dial?

In New York City, you have most, if not all of the pieces in place. What’s missing? Essentially, the only thing missing is a common set of assessments, which is being developed by the Department of Education as I type. Moreover, you’ve got an additional piece here: a citywide accountability report, ArtsCount, which seeks to inventory the provision of arts education across the system.

I recently had a conversation with some policy leaders about this approach. They had argued  that in an age of accountability that the arts would only advance by becoming part of the accountability movement. In other words, if you test, it will be taught. To bolster the argument,, it was also offered that any number of suburban superintendents were now asking for the state to develop such tools to help blunt the pressure to reduce the arts as state funding declines. The idea here is that in high performing districts, such pathways supported through increased testing would help protect the arts. Another way to look at it is that state testing legitimizes a subject. A special endorsement on the Regent’s Diploma would give higher profile to the arts, recognize the serious of the subject area, and provide increased ammunition for superintendents to protect the arts from those who might advocate for cuts, including their school boards.

I posed this question to my colleagues: do you believe that such an approach would make a difference for the kids who currently receive little? I didn’t get much of an answer to that question, but another scenario was proposed: that unless teaching and learning in the arts became something highly measurable, that arts education would decline. And that we shouldn’t fear accountability.

For my money, while further development of formal arts assessments, endorsed diplomas, new curriculum frameworks, etc., would offer incremental benefits in both quality and equity, the real missing ingredient is leadership.

We don’t offer ELA and math as optional subjects, do we?

Unless steps are taken that are based upon real leadership, meaning district, government, and civic leaders that are willing to stand-up for the arts, requiring the arts be taught, all the replacement exams in the world be be but another Waiting for Godot.

What would such leadership look like? Look no further than to Dallas, where Michael Hinojosa has publicly stated that he will not lay off arts teachers, even in the midst of terrible budget cuts. Look no further than Boston, where Carol Johnson makes sure that all school leaders know that the arts are no longer optional.

Here, leadership includes the area of instruction. The most impressive of the district leaders are not solely CEO’s but instructional leaders as well. And, the leadership, a good friend of mine likes to say, is linked to action, not just exhortation from the bully pulpit.

Providing a sound and basic education, that includes the arts for all of our students will require leaders that are willing to take a stand, in other words, lead, instead of offering poor substitutes such as: “if we do it for the arts, we will have to do it for every subject.”


One response to “Waiting For Godot: If You Test it They Will Come”

  1. No doubt arts assessments will be widely implemented as funds become available, because it’s a solution to the problem of sustaining arts instruction as tax dollars fluctuate. The qualitative effect of assessments may be measurable, demonstrable.
    That said, arts experience in schools still needs to be framed first as experience with creativity, ideas, emotions, and imagination, not problem-solving, a sub-set of process. If we thought about the arts from this perspective, curriculum would look very different.
    Assessment approaches need to be cautious: I think they can lead to generic, reductive formulaic solutions. Arts teachers will struggle to integrate curriculum they think are constraints on their instructional decisions.
    On the other hand, accessibility to arts instruction K-12 would be a wonderful thing for American public education and its children. I’ll take the assessments if it guarantees that.