In a piece in Education Week, Sara Mead maintains that art can be assessed through multiple-choice standardized tests.

In defense of multiple-choice testing of the arts, she writes:

The point of arts education shouldn’t be to teach children to simply “enjoy art”–we are, after all free to choose which art we enjoy, or whether we enjoy it at all. Rather, it should be to give children the skills and background knowledge to experience art or music in an informed and more than superficial sense–much of which is about understanding and identifying concepts, vocabulary, and techniques in ways that can be assessed through multiple choice assessments. A major reason that high-quality education needs to include the arts is certain arts-related information–such as names and work of key artists and composers, specific musical or artistic vocabulary and meanings, and artistic movements over time and their relationship to broader historical and social trends–is key cultural knowledge that our students need to be culturally literate. But arts and music instruction in our schools has often ignored cultural literacy and key concepts in favor of performance and “creativity.” 

I don’t agree.

I understand and embrace the idea of cultural literacy, but I don’t think that multiple-choice standardized tests are the best way to teach it or to assess it. If a teacher of music wants students to understand the differences between Mozart and Schoenberg, the best way to do that is to listen to their music and discuss the differences. If the teacher of the arts wants students to understand the differences between classical Greek and Roman architecture, the best way to do it is to view it and discuss it. Picking a bubble is no substitute nor is it a valuable way to learn about art.

It is easy to memorize the names and work of key artists and composers to prepare for a test, and just as easy to forget them when the test is over.

If we want our students to have important cultural knowledge as part of their cultural literacy, we should expose them to the experience that this knowledge represents. We should encourage them to see, feel, hear, and engage with the art or music of other times and places. To the extent that they experience arts as a part of life–their own as well as its creator–they will remember it and have it as part of their own experience.

There is something in a bubble test that is inherently at odds with the arts. One can indeed test for superficial recall, not only in the arts but in other subjects as well. And there are times when it is useful to know the results of large-scale assessment. NAEP is valuable, for example, in providing a snapshot of the state of reading, math, science, history and other subjects. But it is only a snapshot. And the results that are informative for a nation, a state, or a district are less informative and less valid for individual students. For the purposes of large-scale assessment, multiple-choice standardized testing is useful and cheap.

But if it is understanding and discernment that we value, there is not a good case to be made for multiple-choice standardized testing. If it is learning that we care about, there is not a good case to be made for multiple-choice, standardized testing. If it is individual children that we care about, then we want to know what they have learned and what they understand. Conceptual knowledge does not lend itself to bubble tests.