Nancy Flanagan is one of the nation’s premier teachers and bloggers. Unlike many who opine about education (I include myself in that category), Nancy knows teaching inside and out. She was a music teacher for thirty years and was deeply involved in creating National Board Certification for teachers. Now she blogs for Education Week and she is always informative.

When a Washington, D.C., think-tank person suggested that students of the arts should be assessed by standardized, multiple-choice tests, Nancy was properly incensed. (And so were many of the teachers of the arts who commented on this blog.)

In her commentary, Nancy posed a basic question:

Why would we deliberately advance a worthless (and expensive-to-develop) mode of assessment for something as crucial to kids’ well-being and our own economic vitality as the arts? The humanities are a creative wellspring for individual and social innovation. They cannot–and should never be–reduced to rote, bubbled-in recitation of dry facts. What standardized testing in music and the arts yields is mere quantification of students’ ability to memorize. The tests tell us nothing about how students will apply artistic skill and expression to their real lives and careers. Further–they tell us nothing about the instructional quality of their teachers.

Nancy quite rightly criticizes the view that the only way to “save” the arts is to make sure that they are tested by bubble tests. I have heard the same argument from history teachers, and I think it is self-defeating. If you want to save your subject, don’t sacrifice it on the altar of standardized testing. There is no surer way to discourage students of the arts and students of history than to expect them to be judged by bubble tests. There are certainly far more rigorous and appropriate means to assess skills and knowledge than the cheap and easy computer-based and computer-scored questions.

As I read Nancy’s article, I found myself remembering a segment I saw several weeks ago on 60 Minutes. It was about a ragtag symphony orchestra in Africa. One man who loved orchestral music recruited the musicians (none of whom knew how to play anything), found or begged or made instruments, and taught them to play. The musicians left their daily work to study and practice and play together. The segment concluded with a large number of very joyful men and women–living in a desperately poor nation–playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

What a triumph of the human spirit!

Why would anyone give them a standardized test?