As a parent and as an educator, I am annoyed by the assessments that are thrown at public school students here in New York. The students are tested across the board every year in math and English (and science in fourth and eighth grades). They also must endure standardized testing during the course of the year, and in some cases still also have to take midterms and final exams.
Now the NYC Board of Education has made it known that, starting this October, some 80 public schools in New York City will begin testing fifth and eighth graders in the arts (dance, music, theater, and visual arts).
The French term l’art pour l’art comes to mind here. This term, coined by French art critic Théophile Gautier, was meant to free art from any purpose that was not about the art itself. In other words, the art is not for pleasing the public or earning awards or for any reason than the art itself: art for art’s sake.
That makes sense to me. As a writer I more or less feel the freedom to write whatever I please on topics that interest me. The same should hold true for artists in all areas. More importantly, students should experience fine arts in the same spirit. I wouldn’t want my child to think that every picture drawn, every song sung, every composition played on the piano, or every play that she participates in will be subject to an assessment. It is not only bizarre but it is also counter-productive to the nature of the arts in the first place.
As an educator I have seen how students who may be struggling academically can flourish in the arts. Much of this has to do with nascent talent, and the right teachers then come along and help these kids bloom. So yes, talent has a lot to do with it, but it is not about finding the next Mozart or Picasso here. Even the kids who just draw stick figures or sing off-key experience a release, a feeling of freedom, that only the arts can offer. Now, if we start categorizing and assessing these things as if they were just like work done in any other class, then it may as well be just that. I fear the arts will no longer offer students the unbridled sense of freedom of expression that they have enjoyed in these classes. Sadly, teaching to the test will no doubt rear its ugly head and that is truly a pity.
By 2014 the BOE plans to assess all students in all schools to determine whether they are receiving a quality education in the arts. I understand that they believe this to be a way to improve instruction, but this is also a thinly veiled attempt to work toward a place and time when they will be able to remove teachers whose students perform poorly on the arts assessments (as they want to do with teachers in academic areas). Besides this reality, the simple fact is that teachers and students do not need yet another set of assessments to worry about.
The problems with assessments already in place are clear: they are time consuming, they require training for teachers (who are pulled from classrooms for it), and they also need to be graded (once again pulling teachers from classrooms). The loss of valuable instruction time is obvious, and the more insidious aspect is making children feel that every facet of their scholastic experience is now under scrutiny.
With this plan in place, a dance or theater or art class will be assessed. Will this include the painting a child draws or the sculpture made from clay? Or will it be even more invasive, asking a child to decide whether he or she can understand a work of art? One student can look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night and see something different than the next, as it should be. But now we are moving into a very gray area, with it quite possibly being that the assessments will qualify the arts and force students to all see the same thing.