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ACA Week: Susanne Harnett on Designing Benchmark Arts Assessments

Hi, I am Susanne Harnett, evaluator for the Arts Achieve project in New York City (NYC), which is funded through two US DOE i3 and AEMDD grants. Arts Achieve involves a partnership between the NYC Department of Education and five arts organizations based in NYC. Arts Achieve seeks to improve student arts achievement through the development and use of formative and summative assessment and support for arts teachers in using data to inform their instruction.

To that end, the Arts Achieve partnership developed Benchmark Arts Assessments in each of four arts disciplines (dance, music, theater, visual arts). The assessments measure the knowledge and skills that are expected by the end of fifth grade, middle school, and high school, as outlined in the NYC arts standards or the NYC Blueprint for the Arts. The Benchmark Arts Assessments give students opportunities to view, interpret, and analyze master works of art; engage in their own art-making activities; and reflect on and revise their work.

Lessons Learned:

  • Constructing shared understandings. The development of the Benchmark Arts Assessments was a tremendously challenging, but ultimately growth-producing experience. The development teams included arts educators from both within and outside of the NYC DOE.  While the teams used the Blueprint to closely guide the development of content for the assessments, they found it was necessary to prioritize concepts and understandings, as it was not possible to assess all information in one sitting. This development process, along with the critical inter-rater reliability discussions, led to deep, rich, and fruitful conversations about what instruction and assessment should look like in the arts.
  • Developing innovative assessments. The teams were highly committed to making the assessments hands-on, active learning experiences for the students, rather than the paper and pencil multiple-choice assessments that have been the norm in schools. This commitment to honoring higher-level thinking skills and capacities made the development process much more challenging, but kept it true to learning in the arts. Furthermore, the assessments are being used as models as the city moves toward performance-based assessments in other academic subjects.

Hot Tips:

  • Start with clear, defined expectations for student achievement;
  • Invite key stakeholders into development discussions and be prepared to spend considerable; time prioritizing expectations and coming to agreement on levels of achievement;
  • Study preliminary results and refine the assessments as you go.

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arts, Culture, and Audiences (ACA) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.



1 thought on “ACA Week: Susanne Harnett on Designing Benchmark Arts Assessments”

  1. Thank you for sharing your post Susanne. My name is Tina Lepine and I am currently completing the PMED program through Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. As part of my Program Evaluation course I have been asked to comment on an AEA365 post that interests me. As a secondary visual arts teacher, I was intrigued by your post regarding Designing Benchmark Arts Assessments.

    I teach art in British Columbia, Canada, but I am curious about the art curriculum in other provinces and states. Education is provincially mandated and funded in Canada, and although many provinces share commonalities, there is no expectation that the provinces have the same curriculum. You stated that the Benchmark Arts Assessments in the visual arts are designed to measure the knowledge and skills that are expected of students when the they reach certain grades of schooling. The arts are important in K-12 education for many reasons, but I wonder why, when there is such variety in the visual arts and student levels of experience can be so different, students are expected to achieve specific benchmarks by certain ages.

    I read through the NYC Benchmarks for grade 8 and 12 visual arts and I noticed there was an emphasis on skill development and enhancing literacy, and there were few references to creative risk-taking, image development or creating art to convey feelings and ideas. Participation in the arts are often promoted in schools as a method of increasing 21st Century creative thinking skills, but I would argue that a prescribed, skill-based art curriculum is not the most effective way to promote divergent thinking. Recently, our BC curriculum has transitioned towards the inclusion of curricular competencies as well as content, which requires students to communicate information about their ideas and process. The core competencies of communication, thinking, which includes creative, critical and reflective thinking, and personal and social are embedded within all aspects of the new curriculum; the curriculum is organized into flexible ‘learning standards’, a shift from the rigid nature of the ‘prescribed learning outcomes’ in the previous curriculum.

    As you stated, the process of developing the Benchmarks was challenging, and I can imagine it was, as different stakeholders likely have different intentions for art education. Carmen Farina, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, cites vocations in the arts, college and career readiness and lifelong enjoyment of the arts as reasons to promote arts in schools. (2015) Whereas, the BC Ministry of Education rationale states that a strong arts education contributes to the development of well-rounded, educated citizens, and stimulates students’ imaginations, innovation, creativity, and sense of well-being while developing competencies useful to their education and careers. (2020) Even with a common curriculum, it is likely that the expectations for student achievement will vary from school to school. As an art teacher, I am not concerned that all students know or can do the same things in art, I am more interested in encouraging the students to think for themselves and be more engaged in their own learning. Your post has provided a new perspective on art education and access to additional resources. Thanks, Tina

    Arts Education. (2020) BC’s New Curriculum, BC Ministry of Education. Retrieved on August 8, 2020. https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/arts-education/core/goals-and-rationale

    Letter from the Chancellor. (2015) Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Visual Arts, New York City Department of Education. Retrieved on August 8, 2020. https://www.weteachnyc.org/media2016/filer_public/f9/cc/f9ccbf5f-f035-4a8c-bc21-4fc8ecbd5e02/blueprint_visual_arts_2019_reprint_online.pdf

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