Measuring Student Learning in Art Education

By Gruber, Donald D. | Art Education, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Measuring Student Learning in Art Education


Gruber, Donald D., Art Education


In this article, I explore the idea of measuring student learning in art education and endorse a method of assessment for use by art educators. My interest in assessment began early in my teaching career. I became aware then that there was a lack of emphasis among art educators toward assessment. For many of them, the idea of assigning grades to children's artworks presented an ideological dilemma. They viewed assessment as subordinate to the significance of children's creative experiences. But students do learn while creating and that learning can be measured.

Historical Overview of Assessment in Art Education

Until relatively recently the principal emphasis within the field of art education was on creative development with little regard to any substantial measurement of the learning that accompanied that development. However, as early as 1926, psychologist Florence Goodenough developed the Draw a Man Test in an effort to measure intelligence through drawing (Goodenough, 1926). The McAdory Art Test of 1929 and the Meter-Seashore Art Judgment Test of 1930 were two attempts to determine artistic ability (Gaitskell, 1958; Meier, 1966; Gaitskell & Hurwitz, 1970). Neither of those endeavors, however, accounted for actual learning in art.

Art education textbooks written prior to the 1960s made little or no mention of assessment procedures. Some art education writers advocated the advancement of expressionistic creativity. Others promoted the mental and physical growth potential of exposure to art processes. Assessment of student learning in art education was, for the most part, not a central focus. This earlier lack of emphasis on assessment in art education may have stemmed from the prevailing belief that art was not considered an academic discipline and, therefore, did not require the learning and assessment practices of core academic subjects.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, American education was forced into a new direction, which emphasized rigor, quality, and measurement. Some attribute this change to the Russian space program and its early accomplishments. The real reasons, however, were far less simplistic and were already set in motion long before Russia's successful launch of Sputnik in 1957.

An interesting mix of philosophies regarding assessment of learning in art had already begun to appear in the literature. By the early 1960s, educators Manuel Barkan, Elliot Eisner, and Ralph Smith were advocating the idea of structure and discipline in art education (Barkan, 1962; Eisner, 1966; Smith, 1966). Moreover, by the mid-1980s, art education was firmly considered a distinct academic discipline (Efland, 1990).

However, in the art classroom, assessment still did not receive significant emphasis. Nonetheless, recent calls for accountability along with current trends toward academic standards have combined to create an interest on the part of art teachers in assessment strategies.

The Importance of Measurement of Learning

The classical approach to determining grades in art found the terms assessment and evaluation used interchangeably. However, the two terms have now been clearly defined as to their appropriate use and context. According to the National Art Education Visual Arts Standards, evaluation encompasses the global aspects of the curriculum. Assessment, on the other hand, refers to more tightly focused measurements at the level of the individual student and his or her interactions within the art program. Assessment, therefore, measures student learning and evaluation measures program efficacy. For the purposes of this article, assessment will be the primary focus of measurements of student learning.

Educational Accountability: It's the Law

Currently, educational accountability underscores the need for reliable assessment and evaluation to support innovations in curriculum design, instructional methods, program funding, and the appraisal of student achievement. …

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