Artists swallow hard as state starts testing

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In 1985, the Illinois State Board of Education adopted broad learning goals in six areas, from language arts to fine arts. A decade after it rolled out its first language arts test, the state is still working on a fine arts test.

At the direction of state legislators, the state board worked first on reading, math and writing and then on science and social studies tests. Tests of physical education and fine arts were at the bottom of the legislators’ list for the Illinois Goals Assessment Program (IGAP).

“There’s always been tension between developing the last two and schools complaining about too much testing,” acknowledges Merv Brennan, a consultant in the state board’s standards and assessments division.

Last spring, the state board piloted a fine arts test with 4th-, 7th- and 11th-graders at 99 schools around the state, including 29 in Chicago. The tests were comprised of 52 multiple-choice questions, 13 each in music, visual arts, drama and dance.

This spring, every 4th-, 7th- and 11th-grader in the state will be tested in one of the four fine arts areas. Six multiple-choice questions will be tacked onto the bottom of the social studies tests. By using this representative testing method, the state can get a fix on how well individual schools and the state as a whole are doing in the fine arts without greatly expanding students’ testing time.

Chicago arts educator Karl Androes, a member of the state board’s advisory committee on arts testing, feels the testing program does not adequately measure what arts educators value. But he applauds the test as a step in the right direction. “I don’t know that the test is perfect, I don’t know if I agree with how it measures stuff, but the idea that the arts are important enough to measure … is one that I support wholeheartedly,” he says.

“What gets tested gets taught,” he concludes. “It’s sort of the deal with the devil the arts community has made.”

Yet, testing in the arts remains controversial. “Testing fine arts is ludicrous,” says Suzanne Cohan-Lange, interdisciplinary arts chair at Columbia College. “You end up lowering the level of discourse … if you know you’re going to be tested.” Testing pits learning facts against learning to experiment or finding your voice, she explains. “Deep down we’re all against it,” she says. “It’s the goofiest idea to come down the pike yet.”

Last July, the state board approved more specific standards to support its broader learning goals. Here’s what they laid out for fine arts:

Goal 1: Know the language of the arts.

Standard A: Understand the sensory elements, organizational principles and expressive qualities of the arts.

Standard B: Understand the similarities, distinctions and connections in and among the arts.

Goal 2: Through creating and performing, understand how works of art are produced.

Standard A: Understand processes, traditional tools and modern technologies used in the arts.

Standard B: Apply skills and knowledge necessary to create and perform in one or more of the arts. (Note: The performance standard is not included in the fine arts tests.)

Goal 3: Understand the role of the arts in civilizations, past and present.

Standard A: Analyze how the arts function in history, society and everyday life.

Standard B: Understand how the arts shape and reflect history, society and everyday life.

Still to come are specific guidelines for what students are expected to know about the arts at each grade level.