There’s a maxim in the education world that only subjects that are tested are funded. Thus an imperative for arts education champions to get the arts included in required standardized tests. In a STEM world, the arts don’t exist.
But how do you make standardized tests for the arts? Multiple choice questions might measure knowledge but do they measure creativity or arts skill? And when you ask students to make art, things get sticky when you try to grade with a number. Famously:
“when the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, included an arts test in 1997, it required students to create real works of art in addition to answering standard multiple-choice questions. (That year’s test famously led to semitractor-trailers full of student-created clay bunnies; since then, efforts have been made to digitize work in photos or videos.)”
We live in a culture that seems to feel that unless we can empirically measure something, it’s not worth much. And it’s not just enough to measure, the measure must be translatable into a standardized number of some sort. Sarah Butrymowisz reports in The Atlantic that:
Coming up with a uniform and efficient way to measure a subject that’s all about creativity is difficult. In its arts tests, Florida has incorporated multiple-choice and short-answer questions that are easy to score efficiently. New Hampshire and Michigan are trying something more ambitious: devising tasks that require a student to submit a finished piece of artwork or perform a piece of music. These tests are time-intensive to administer and grade, however, and the results are difficult to translate into a single numeric score.
The push to find the best way to test the arts is coming from arts educators themselves in many instances. They hope to foster not only student improvement, but also a sense that the arts are as valuable to curriculum and society as such long-tested subjects as math and reading.
“It’s very important for arts to be seen as a subject that can be and should be tested,” said Frank Philip, an arts-assessment consultant. “It’s a parity thing.”
Got it. The arts want to be considered as legit as science or math or reading. So the search for a measure that means something. But maybe it doesn’t exist.
We tend to measure success in the creative world by how many copies of a book were sold, how many music tracks were bought, how many tickets of a play or concert were purchased. These sales numbers ultimately define the “worth” of the art (and before anyone writes in to point out the difference between the value of art and entertainment, I want to add that the arts also measure success by how many – and who – pays attention, so it’s a popularity score too, just on a different scale).
We’re undergoing a realignment of measurement right now. Popularity isn’t worth what it used to be (if it ever was). If a video can get a billion views on YouTube, what’s that worth? A billion is an astonishing number, but only if it produces some tangible return. Once upon a time, to sell a million records meant something because it translated into cash and fame. Your career as an artist likely was unsustainable if you couldn’t find an audience to sell to.
Today a billion views might not result in much financial return, and fame has been so devalued its worth is suspect too. Over on Slipped Disc this week, Norman Lebrecht dinged classical performers who had a lot of Facebook likes (relatively speaking) and had seemed to have bought those likes. So if you appear to have lots of fans, you must be popular, and that translates into what exactly? Web companies have been struggling for some time to define “engagement” rather than raw audience since page views and clicks have become so devalued as to be almost meaningless. The arts are all about engagement. But measuring it? No one has yet figured out a standardized number to quantify a person’s engagement with a Beethoven symphony. Now, is that a problem or does it say something something fundamentally important about the nature of art?