By MacGregor, Ronald N.
School Arts , Vol. 90, No. 9
The afternoon sun beat on the tin roof of the Agricultural Fairground Exhibition Hall, raising the inside temperature into the high 80s. On this occasion, the heat is not directed on prize vegetables or country baking, but rather on artwork--artwork arranged on the walls, on shelves and tables and hanging from wooden rafters. Two men thread their way through this collection. Dressed in shorts and knee socks and armed with clipboards and pens, they look as if they might be customs officers. They are, in fact, moderators, responsible for adjusting the scores awarded to students by their teachers for their performance in grade 12 art. This is the Riverland in South Australia. It is early November and scenes like these occur in towns and districts across the state as grade 12 assessment gets under way.
Formal examination of student art is not a familiar practice in North America. American reactions to the idea are likely to run from outright rejection, on the grounds that comparisons among artworks are invalid, to confusion about the relationship of benefits to costs. In other parts of the world, examination (or more accurately, assessment) in art is taken for granted. England, Scotland, Holland, New Zealand and Australia are examples of countries that have devised means to determine whether or not system-wide goals have been met. Teachers estimate the degree of success achieved by each of the students (assessment) and each teacher's estimates are checked externally and adjusted, if necessary, to bring them into line with other teachers' marks (moderation).
In South Australia, this takes place near the end of the school year, in October and November. Twelve months before this, grade n students will have consulted with their teachers to determine what kinds of projects they will undertake in grade 12. They may elect to take art as a Publicly Examined Subject (PES), which will be accepted by universities as an entrance requirement, or they may take it as a School Assessed Subject (SAS). The main difference in content between the two routes is that art history and criticism form part of the PES program, but not the SAS program.
By October of their grade 12 year, students will have selected their best efforts for display from the work they have completed over the year. Whatever fears there might be that assessment could promote teaching to a formula do not survive in face of the diversity, originality and personal interpretation seen in the student work. A visitor might also be struck by the exceptional technical quality of the artwork.
Students set up their own displays, sometimes in the artroom or school gymnasium, sometimes in community complexes, fairgrounds or other public spaces. Students often work over the weekend or in the evenings to prepare and hang their work. The teacher inspects the work and enters a score for each student. The teacher uses as criteria, the objectives set up by student and teacher at the end of the grade 11 year. The teacher also uses a workbook or folder of material submitted by the student as evidence of sustained development of a theme, or of exploratory study related to the exhibited work.
A day or two later, over fifty moderators arrive. They work in pairs, driving and even flying to the most remote corners of the state. Teachers who volunteer are appointed to be moderators yearly. Because a teacher might be a moderator today whose students' work is being moderated tomorrow, there is little profit in being aggressive or uncompromising in the role of moderator. Often, visits are opportunities to renew acquaintances and crises are rare.
In mid-October, moderators participate in a one-day familiarization exercise, involving a benchmark school, to assist in adjusting marks. This school volunteers to have its work moderated before any of the others. The school's teachers work with a small group of senior moderators to produce a scale reflective of the relative excellence of each student's performance. …