Arts Ed: The Quality Question

By Helena Liikanen-Renger


(Cover detail from The Qualities of Quality Report)

Debates about the state of arts education most often focus on the quantity of education available. Measuring quantity is difficult enough, as we’ve shown here. But trying to assess the quality of arts education proves to be even tougher and more controversial. Delivery of arts education is hard to measure objectively – as is the actual experience of learning. It depends on how you define it. Even if conditions for learning are ideal – good space, sufficient materials, experienced teachers – there is no guarantee that the classroom experience will be inspiring and creative.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which aimed to create accountability and ways to measure the quality of all public education, included the arts as a part of core curricula. However, testing standards applied to other areas such as reading and math didn’t easily translate to subjects like visual arts or music. Arts educators have almost universally said the result is that support for the arts in school budgets has dropped off in favor of funding areas that could be measured, which directly affect school performance evaluations.

President Barack Obama’s widely-praised Race to the Top program promised billions of dollars to school districts that agreed to evaluate all teachers based on student achievement data. The program encouraged school districts to also find ways of assessing difficult-to-measurable subjects such as arts and physical education.

In the beginning of 2012 National Endowment for the Arts publishes a research called “Improving the Assessment of Student Learning in the Arts”, the first attempt to assess the practices of measuring the quality of arts learning. The paper found 30 high-quality assessment tools used in the country and also recommended the creation of a national database with quality arts assessment tools.

But Steven Seidel, faculty director of the Harvard Arts in Education Program and the head of Qualities of Quality Research suggests that measuring quality through test results is unsatisfactory. “Judging the quality of any education is quite challenging”, Seidel says. “Quality is a kind of moving target.”

So what is good art education? Is it when students produce excellent artworks? Or when they learn art appreciation? Or a combination of both? Given the subjective nature of art and the difficulty of meaningful standardized measures of an education experience, why do we even need to assess quality? Can’t we just agree that exposure to art is good for us and move on?

Lynn Waldorf, the principal researcher of the “Arts for All” School Arts Survey done in Los Angeles, and the executive director of Griffin Center for Inspired Instruction goes to the bottom line. If you want to make sure the arts are taught in schools, you have to have a way to measure how they’re being taught. Otherwise, other subjects get priority. “We are seeing some evidence that if you have a strategic plan in place to support the arts education, those programs are not being cut as severely as those who don’t have a strategic plan in the arts.”

Additional reporting by Ricky O’Bannon


Difficult as it is to define a quality arts education experience, many are trying.

(Source: LA County Arts)

Five Attempts to Measure Quality (US)

  • PROGRAM EVALUATION: LA Arts for All School Arts Survey used 16 indicators to assess the school arts education programs in five school districts. (source: lacountyarts.org)
  • STANDARDIZED TESTS: In the NEA’s National Assessment of Educational Progress in the Arts (2008) students were required to do paper-and-pencil tasks and performance tasks. (source: nces.ed.gov) South Carolina Arts Assessment Program (SCAAP): Students complete multiple-choice tests and must complete performance assignments. (source: scaap.ed.sc.edu)
  • CLASSROOM PERFORMANCE: In the State of Washington teachers evaluate students throughout the school year.(source: k12.wa.us)
  • STUDENTS PORTFOLIOS: The students of International Baccalaureate art program are required to complete a portfolio in two years that is judged by an outside evaluator. IB program is a study program that provides internationally accepted qualification for universities all over the world. IB programs are offered in over 140 schools, USA included. (source: ibo.org)
  • ARTS TEACHER EVALUATION: The arts teachers in Memphis are testing a new method where a teacher collects a digital portfolio of his students’ works and videos showing student progress. The portfolio is evaluated by a blind faculty peer review. (source: commercialappeal.com)

(Source: Eurydice/European Commission)

Five Attempts to Measure Quality (International)

  • CANADA: Assessments based on knowledge and understanding, use of critical and creative thinking skills, communication, and application – the use of knowledge and skills to make connections. (sources: edu.gov.on.ca)
  • SINGAPORE: Assessment is tied to specific arts projects. Criteria includes presentation, projects, work in progress, portfolios and written tests. Assessment is divided into categories: Art making (60-80%) and Art Discussion (20-40%)
  • (source: nccas.wikispaces.com)
  • NEW ZEALAND: Precise assessment process for education. Assesment tools and guidelines are available online. Even examplars of children’s artwork are displayed for teachers to use in order qualify work. (source: tki.org.nz)
  • MALTA: Students (lower secondary) who are studying arts and design are assessed in two areas: painting and drawing. Students are evaluated on 1) work produced on a theme which is given to them 2) what they are capable of reproducing from an object which they are asked to observe. (source: eacea.ed.europa.eu)
  • IRELAND and UK : Students (lower secondary) who choose optional art subjects have to take a national assessment test. It consists of a ‘paper and pencil’ examination as well as producing a personal project . There is also a practical test in music. (source: eacea.ed.europa.eu)

Join the conversation