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greetings from dpi National Expectations for Learning in

Arts Education (NELAE) Mel Pontious, State Fine Arts Consultant, Department of Public Instruction

I hope your sum- mer was restful and rejuvenating. In the meantime, things have been proceed- ing along in our world. The educa- tional press is abuzz with discussions of the Common Core

Standards in math and English language arts. These are designed to be National Standards in the hope that, with national tests, the underlying educational system will be changed, equity and excellence will result, and it will again be morning in America!

This places the major responsibility for change on teachers. However, given the many factors over which they have no control, teachers generally feel power- less to change the system and achieve the mandated excellence. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, as a result, statewide test- ing drove teachers and administrators to game the system and produce a façade of excellence and equity based on test scores. It would be foolish to think that national testing, with high stakes (and they would quickly become high stakes!), will have a different effect.

This column will address the background of this movement, its implications for the arts and the resulting initiative of a con- sortium of stakeholders in the arts.


This move to develop Common Core Standards (and the national tests that will surely follow) is a reactionary and sim- plistic initiative based on the practices of the 19th

of outside interests dictating educational policy for other than educational interests. It is further fed by the hype of international testing, which politicians and the media frame as a cognitive athletic competi- tion. Educational experts such as the late Gerald Bracey, David Berliner, Yong Zhao and others have exposed the false premises (which are too complicated for this space) on which this is based. Suffice it to say that, without changes, this latest move might well put the testing craze on steroids.

Implications for the Arts

This poses a dilemma for arts educators. If they decline to become party to what could be an educational travesty, they may well have it imposed on them by non-educators, or, failing that, become further marginal- ized in terms of funding and teaching time (“What gets tested gets taught”). The other horn of the dilemma is to join the crowd and have some influence in the process but run the risk of losing that most pre- cious element of the arts – creativity. The way the standards are generally regarded can lead to conformity, the antithesis of creativity.

In its present form it follows the unfortu- nate tradition, begun in the 18th

century industrial model school. century,


National assessment is assumed, and the tendency is to apply to the arts the same quantitative assessment as is used in math and reading. This ignores the pronounced differences between those subjects and the arts. Words and numbers communicate well-defined meanings and are therefore basic “tool” subjects that can give one access to understandings in other areas such as history, science, philosophy, eco- nomics, etc. (Not mentioned here are the validity problems of formal assessment. The most valid assessment occurs in the learning context, with the further benefit of promoting learning. See the end of this article.)

“The way the standards are generally regarded can lead to conformity, the antithesis of creativity.”

By contrast, meaning in the arts is con- veyed through aural or visual symbols, and much of the meaning is supplied by the observer and the personal history the observer brings to the artistic encounter. This is one of the strengths of the arts. By engaging the senses and that unique human faculty, the imagination, the arts can express deeper meanings than the more precise media of language or num- bers. Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer, said it well: “If I could speak it, I wouldn’t have to dance it.” More recently, the late Ernest Boyer echoed this in his 1994 report to the Dodge Foundation: “For the most intimate, most profoundly moving experiences, we needed a more subtle, a more sensitive set of symbols than the written word and the spoken word. And this richer language we call the arts.”

The basic difference then, is a qualita- tive one, and it follows that aspects of qualitative assessment must be the basis of assessment in the arts. Although this is subjective, which raises reliability concerns, reliability and precision can be provided by rubrics describing desired outcomes, ideally determined by con- sensus beforehand by both students and teachers.

September 2010

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