Handbook of Research and Policy in Art Education

By Elliot W. Eisner; Michael D. Day | Go to book overview

25
Assessment and Visual Arts
Education
Elisabeth Soep
Youth Radio & University of California, Berkeley

The relationship between art and assessment is best characterized as awkward, if not overtly hostile. Arts educators tend to bemoan the impact of mandatory evaluations on imaginative practice. To make matters worse, accountability systems and testing conventions are often imported from academic subjects—domains of learning that may more easily “break down” into component questions with clear right answers, which students can conscientiously bubble in on multiple-choice tests. Visual arts projects can be messy, whether they involve hands-on production tasks or responses to work by established artists. It is difficult, and some might argue damaging, to evaluate student performance on these kinds of tasks according to predetermined standards. Matters get even more complicated when judgments about the quality of student work go beyond individual encounters between teachers and their students, when educators are answerable to state-sponsored mandates or external reviews.

This view, which pits art against assessment like two opponents in a boxing ring, is often justified. Nevertheless, much can be learned when we force ourselves to recognize what the work of visual art and the work of assessment have in common. Perhaps the two are not as oppositional as they initially appear.

1. Artworks and assessment works visualize the ineffable. Both visual artists and assessors are often in the business of rendering tangible something that defies easy articulation. Now, one could argue that plenty of tests merely require students to report bits of information— correct dates, names, and solutions, for example. But underlying individual test items is usually a drive to understand something much more elusive, like student learning, or what a young person knows and is able to do. Likewise, artists are not always interested in conveying some profound, ground-breaking message. Yet artworks function in a larger sense as objects that capture and convey complex meanings (even when they call into question the very possibility of “meaning” as an attribute of art). Both assessors and artists operate in worlds where tensions of translation are inevitable, in the always imperfect action of turning thoughts into things. In this section of the Handbook, Persky in particular explores these tensions, in her analysis of efforts by national assessors not to overburden visual arts tasks with verbal directions—a

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