Authentic Assessment in Art
Dr Max Darby (Art Consultant Asia/Pacific Region).
A discussion based on some aspects of his Doctorate Thesis available in the Library of Latrobe University.
Original version written for Art Education Victoria (AEV) in 2007
Who of you hasn’t faced problems assessing the art of their students? If you have, you’re not alone. Welcome to a very large club. Questions have often been asked about whether we should assess students’ art or not, and, if we do assess it, how is it best to assess it? If we don’t, it is clear we will lose art as a subject in the curriculum because no-one will value a subject that doesn’t count towards tertiary entry. Assessment, however, is never easy for anyone. Not for those new to ‘the game’ and not to those who have been ‘playing the game’ for years. I listened to the opinions of other teachers I valued, devised my own rules and strategies, kept some to myself and shared others. However, I almost always inherited those I was forced to use. Sometimes I found personal answers, but never quite worked out or understood the ‘rules of the game’. That’s not likely to give you much comfort. I was sometimes asked to help people with their student assessments (particularly of VCE work). Although I always enjoyed it immensely, I was never sure that I convinced them of why I did things the way I did. Hopefully, my contribution at the time provided some comfort.
In any State controlled education system, one’s personal solutions are seldom valued, no matter how good, or reasonable, or defendable or how rational they seem. Today there appears to be paranoia about control and uniformity. This is not just true of assessment, but also in the devising and structuring of courses, programs and activities at all levels of education. Even the expected outcomes are determined. Gone, sadly, is the freedom and spontaneity that creative activity in the Visual Arts (and other Arts) so often relies on. What is usually lost is the free spirit of exploration, experimentation, and individual development that encourages students of all ages to create visually exciting, personal artworks without fear of failure and without the fear of needing to meet someone else’s pre-conceived expectations. And, of course, perhaps it needs to be that way given how much money is spent on education and the increasingly high expectations of those who pay for it. It’s called ‘accountability’. So be it.
There has been increasing pressure, however, to make of a subject that is primarily subjective, something that is objective. That is, something that can be explained and rationalized and measured and authenticated like other subjects. Doing that is seen as giving ‘authenticity’ to visual arts as a valid education subject. But, art is not like other subjects. That’s its strength. Sadly, the ‘objective means’ that are devised (usually criteria with numbers attached), always fall back on subjective decisions so any argument about their objectivity seems indefensible! And, even more sadly, is the fact that what is achieved in the Visual Arts is often not rational and explainable. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. This is so often misunderstood or remains unrecognized. Because the Visual Arts as a means of experiencing life is that way, is one of the most critical reasons for its inclusion in the education of all students. It puts students in touch with essential aspects of humanity that are primarily different to what they experience elsewhere.
One aspect of accountability that appears to suffer when such approaches are used, however, is the needs of Art Education. In assessment, of all things, a system or process, or approach that is consistent with the nature of the subject is absolutely critical. That is, however we assess student art must be in a manner that is reconcilable with the nature of art education, its underlying philosophy (especially what it sets out to do) and the spirit in which young people undertake the act of creating art. Any approach that differs from this renders the act of creating, or making, or designing, or producing personal art works, powerless, worthless and invalid. In fact, if the method of assessment is not consistent with those things above, it’s not authentic assessment!
Assessment in the Visual Arts is problematic for a number of reasons. Without going into all of them, the major issue, I think, is that seldom do any of us have the opportunity to devise our own methods of assessment, inheriting instead, the ideas and processes of someone else. Because of this our own specific needs and those of our individual students, our individual schools and their unique contexts are largely ignored. A strong argument could be made to support the idea that different art activities and different ideas (maybe even different students and teachers) require different assessment processes. While I’m not making that argument now, it’s one of those challenges that is worth art teachers thinking about sometime. Instead of devising one assessment approach, maybe what is needed is more – maybe even 3 or 4 approaches that can be used in different situations.
Through the years, there have been numerous approaches to assessment that have been used. Some of us remember them well. Some of us have been required to use all of them at some time! In most instances, they were not our own. Some of them were good and some of them were less so. Key words such as ‘criterion based assessment’, ‘broad descriptors’, ‘moderation’, ‘review’, ‘bench marks’, standards’, ‘gut reaction’, ‘connoisseurship’, ‘specified needs’ and ‘specified outcomes’ are familiar to many of us.
I’ve long held the opinion that it doesn’t really matter which approach to assessment is used providing the teachers who use it are professional and experienced (maybe trained – not sure about that, however, because training hints of indoctrination!). In fact, most teachers would arrive at the same decision when making a judgment about which folio was the strongest and which was the weakest, regardless of which approach to assessment was used. I once did a workshop for AEV with different groups of teachers using different approaches to assessment to judge a range of folios. The result clearly demonstrated the above point because there was total agreement about which folios were the strongest, which were the weakest and which were in between, regardless of which approach was used!
While the method of assessment is important, as mentioned earlier, there might be a greater argument that teachers need to become more knowledgeable about the different authentic assessment approaches that are available, and become more experienced in using a range of assessment approaches and processes in different situations
My strong interest in assessment influenced my selection of a topic for my Doctor of Philosophy studies from 1995 – 2000. It provided a challenge that was personally satisfying as well as something that might be of interest to Victorian Art Education. The title was –A New Approach to Assessment in the Visual Arts at the Senior Secondary Level of Schooling. While the topic has a major focus on the senior levels, the influence of what happens during VCE has always impacted enormously down through schools at all levels of art teaching, so I believe it has relevance there as well. What happens at the top end, however, is seldom appropriate for the younger levels. This interesting issue is not addressed here and has been left for another day. While the full details of the Thesis are best checked out in the work itself, the following 5 guiding principles of assessment were outlined in the final recommendations. Each of the recommendations is discussed in enormous breadth with numerous aspects to contemplate and what is provided below outlines only the major thrusts. Hopefully, some of the guiding principles are comforting in that they are not new. Others raise some ideas that art teachers might find interesting and challenging to consider.
Guiding Principle 1: Assessment should be based on global judgments rather than on dissected parts.
This principle is based on the idea that one of the major mysteries of artistic form is how it is perceived as a whole, rather than contemplated in its various parts. Seldom does the use of individual criteria, for example, ever address the overall impact of the work. They break the work down into fairly meaningless parts that focus our view in such a way that it’s difficult to put it all back together. In reality, everything that can be seen in a work interacts with everything else. The selection and use of colors, for example, interacts with brushwork or palette knife technique; with design and composition; with the use of colors for expression of emotions or feelings; with the various influences from other artists and with the communication of meanings and messages. In a successful work, all of these things provide a global response to color rather than elicit breaking it up to consider each part individually. And, an artwork usually has many other aspects rather than just color. If it’s going to be broken up, it realistically needs breaking up into a hundred or more parts, making it a useless exercise in terms of judging its artistic quality during assessment.
Breaking an artwork up into parts, such as with the use of predetermined criteria, also encourages students to work towards meeting just those things specified. This does not encourage the breaking or extending of personal boundaries. Such specificity of individual qualities that are expected during assessment, anticipates what a student will do in advance. It guides them and controls how they work and what they do. Surely this in contrary to what we argue art education is about.
Have you ever told students that if they wanted to do well they needed to do something or other outlined by the criteria? While the methods of artists are often underpinned by expectations that are different to those in education, I wonder how many professional artists today work towards the expectations of other people? Certainly, how many would work towards meeting someone else’s criteria? Of course there are some, but few of the ‘great artists’ would today accept those restrictions.
When assessing artworks, it seems critical that the overall impact of the works themselves be the major focus. Of course, any break up of the numerous small bits only provides a form of ‘validation’ of our initial overall judgment.
Guiding Principle 2: Assessment should take advantage of the notion of ‘emerging criteria’ and/or ‘emerging interpretations of criteria’ and not rely on the use of predetermined criteria.
The idea of ‘emerging criteria’ or ‘emerging interpretations of criteria’ provides flexibility when criteria are deemed useful or necessary. In many instances, the nature of an artwork does not become evident until it is encountered. This can be as true of student artists as it can of career artists. The work of Jackson Pollock, for example, needed to be seen before ways of judging it could be considered. Predetermined ideas about art and about what he should have done at that time would have failed his ideas of the aesthetic enormously. In fact, the works of many artists of his era challenged established views of aesthetic or artistic value. I freak at what some of our approaches to assessment would have done to Pollock’s work, and that of Rothko, for example, had they undertaken VCE or any of the other State senior certificates! They might still have problems today! Equally so for Olsen, Tillers, Mora, Tucker, Nolan, Piccinini and Emily Kame Kngwarre!
What is being proposed is that an approach be developed that enables assessors to design new ways of assessing that suit the nature of the works they encounter. Or, if appropriate, to flexibly interpret or ‘bend’ the criteria to suit the artworks, rather than bending artworks to suit the criteria! The challenge, of course, is that in allowing this flexibility, how could comparability of results be guaranteed? Actually they can’t, but nor can they with any other approach to assessment including the existing approaches, despite what is argued. Isn’t that one major reason why tertiary art institutions allocate places through interview and seeing portfolios of works first hand? They look for quite different qualities than those addressed by the criteria. In fact, they don’t have too much faith in the criteria or those who apply them. And many of the different qualities they look for have to do with individual differences, not similarities! I think you might have encountered this before!
Guiding Principle 3: Assessment should place equal emphasis on the value of the artistic process and on the value of the completed product.
This guiding principle is not new and few art educators would oppose it. What is being proposed though is greater official recognition of all of the processes used. This would include idea generation and exploration, problem solving, design and composition, working and technical processes and those of on-going evaluation, adaptation and variation. In many ways, the ‘processes of art education’ provide greater validity for the visual arts in the school curriculum. That’s another issue that should be talked about at some stage. Sadly, we too often hold up just the product as our reason to exist! Not that the ‘product’ is unimportant. It’s the reason that so many students undertake something as difficult as art. Both should be given equal status in assessment. For some students though, the artistic ‘process’ might actually become their artistic ‘product’! That could be very exciting. It would focus art education firmly on ‘thinking and learning’, rather than just on the need to perform.
Guiding Principle 4: Assessment should acknowledge there is an essential role to be played by the student, the teacher and a visiting examiner.
There are insights that students have to their work that cannot be provided by anyone else. Sadly, writing about their ideas seldom communicates anything of the frustration, passion and personal involvement in the selection of topics and the individual beliefs, values and ideas that have been explored. The student brings to assessment a realistic view of what they set out to do and how they went about the creation of their works. The teacher too brings observations and knowledge about which even the student is unaware. The visiting examiner brings broader knowledge of standards and qualities of a statewide context. I have sometimes needed to point out to a teacher some of the things their own students have achieved that would otherwise have been missed! These 3 people, working together, should make a final judgment about what has been achieved. Each of these personal insights is essential in authentic assessment in the visual arts.
Guiding Principle 5: Assessment should be based on dialogue generated through discussion between the student, teacher and a visiting examiner.
This guideline emphasizes that assessment in the visual arts needs to be face to face with the work and needs to involve the student, teacher and visiting examiner. In that situation each can contribute to talk and the sharing of ideas and information. Can it be done? Of course it can if it’s sufficiently valued. That is the key, of course, and it’s something art educators need to work towards – making the visual arts valued as an education and life experience (another discussion topic for the future!). The International Baccalaureate Organization manages this when it examines (through individual interview) over 9,000 Visual Arts candidates in over 120 countries worldwide each year. And, each has a visiting examiner!
Hopefully this brief introduction to the topic of assessment provokes some interest and discussion. It should be one that generates agreement, disagreement and debate. There is seldom an opportunity for art teachers to engage and interact this way on such a critical topic. There are too many expectations placed on us all to allow such luxuries even when they’re considered critical. Hopefully assessment might become the topic of research for more teachers in the near future. Hopefully too, it might become the focus of some workshops or discussion groups at future AEV activities, especially the annual conference. Perhaps, even an email discussion forum.
Remember, there is nothing right or wrong here…nothing you need to take up…nothing that is going to bind you to a course of action at school…nothing that obligates you to do more work…nothing you need to explain or justify. That should be refreshing and a relief. It should be your comfort and ‘refuge from the storm’ that you face daily! Hopefully, it’s sufficiently interesting and challenging in its own right to encourage you as professionals to ‘become involved’ in the future of art education, particularly of valuable discussion about assessment.
Dr. Max Darby