Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Art Folders and assessment philosophy.

In my previous post I wrote the following concerning assessing the arts:

How does one measure attitudes, self-confidence, self-discipline, a sense of accomplishment, or the development of a student’s neurobiological system? A highly structured arts program complete with a highly structured assessment can’t accurately measure these things. And if the arts are highly structured, there is a danger that individual expression may diminish or be completely lost. Many students will turn off to the arts. This is the exact opposite of what we want to accomplish through the arts.

(I should say from the start that I'm really talking about the report card grades here and not the grades of each individual assignment. While I do grade some assignments, I only do so for my own personal record keeping. I'm more interested in celebrating work accomplished and hearing what students says about their own work, what they like about their work, why they chose the colors they chose, or whatever their thoughts are when reflecting on completed work. In my view, at least at the elementary level, the worst thing to do is to grade each piece of work. Some students already have the "I can't do it" attitude and it seems to me that assigning grades to each assignment would only reinforce that attitude in some students.)

I've always struggled with assessments in visual arts. I don't like attaching a "grade" to a child's artwork. I'd rather simply grade according to a student's attendance and class participation. In my view, the skills students possess in the arts aren't as important as their level of engagement. If, for example, a gifted student slacks off, but produces work that is above that of his/her peers, in most systems they could still get a good grade. Conversely, a student who is fully engaged in the art assignments, displays a positive attitude, but lacks the skills to produce exemplary work, might not receive a good grade, despite the hard work. But which is a more important attribute: natural skill or a good work ethic and positive attitude?

I don't have the luxury of using the “pass/fail” approach that Jensen's suggests as a better way to assess the arts. In the system I must use, the grading is on a scale of 1-4. A "3" is given if the student is meeting the State standards for that grade level.

Using this system for recording grades, my approach is very simple. During the first two class meetings I have the students take an 11x17 piece of white construction paper, fold it in half, and use that "folder" to put all their class assignments and sketches in. I try to do a quick assessment of each child's work as they are completing each project. I do this during class. I also review their folder work and do a quick visual assessment of their work.

There are a few specifics I am looking for when assigning a grade. Did the student complete the assignments and exercises in class? How well did they follow the instructions given? Did the student demonstrate a level of understanding of the concepts being learned? I try to follow Jensen's suggestions for the "pass/fail" approach even though I'm giving a numerical grade.

The criteria for pass/fail are simple, straightforward and reachable by all students. Students must have good attendance in class, participate in the class activities, develop a portfolio of their work, get portfolio feedback via peer sharing as well as other ideas listed by Jensen, and participate in a student/teacher conference.

A portfolio of a student's work (or "Folder" as I refer to it) will tell you something of a student's attendance - missing assignment pieces is likely due to an absence (I don't keep records of attendance as it is just one more thing to track) and certainly will tell you their participation level in class. The portfolio, along with class observations, will give you enough information to assign fair grades.

One drawback to the numerical grading system is that nasty little "skills and concepts" box. Some students clearly are above the line, and some below. Where students clearly fall below the line, I grade accordingly. Where students clearly rise above it, I grade accordingly. I rarely give out "4's" or "2's" except where it's completely clear that under "skills and concepts," that's what the student deserves. Visually, the 1 - 4 grading continuum looks like this in my mind:

1-1//2---2//3-------------------------------------3// 4---4

All points on the grading scale are not equal in my view. Most students will fall under the "3" as it is the largest area. Few fall under the "2" (below grade level) or "4" (above grade level) and even fewer under the "1." To get a "1" in my class you'd have to show up and do nothing (and I've had a few students like that!).

I hope someday that the grading for the arts will more accurately reflect the long term goals of the arts and not simply reflect some need for accountability. Until then, this is the system I use, flawed as it is. In review, Jensen offers these three ideas to include in assessing the visual arts:

1 Have good attendance in class

2 Appropriate participation in the class activities

3 Develop a portfolio of their work and get portfolio feedback (from peers and instructor)

As always, I would love to hear your ideas on the thoughts I've presented.


  1. I struggle with this too. We are expected to be working towards 100% standard based grading, with NO grades attached to attendance, effort or attitudes. So if the student can not use a ruler to draw a straight line, they don't meet the standard period. No matter that they are in a wheelchair and have one hand that they can't use at all. They don't meet the standard. Or they don't speak english and as much as I try to explain in all visual ways, they still can't draw a 3-d perspective city street. No matter how hard they try, they don't meet the standard. Then the gifted kid that does it in 5 minutes, but hasn't learned anything new or stretched their own creativity, they meet the standard and now get to be disruptive for the next week, since they did it already. I want to like standard based grading because it means that anyone that meets the standard knows the same skills and can achieve the same things, in theory. but it is a struggle to get all the kids to the same place when they have totally different backgrounds and experiences before they get to me. It is middle school, but many of them, this is the first time in their LIFE they have even seen a ruler or crayon. If I could grade them on standards that fit their life experiences, I could pass them at 2nd grade standards. anyways... good luck with your methods as I stuggle to work though mine. :)

  2. Thank you for your comments Cynthia. You've hit the nail on the head. It's exactly how things are for many of us in arts education. As art educators, we know that the standards outline good goals for our students but they don't reflect the long term value of the arts - those things cannot be measured.