Busiest Week Ever Part 2- Slightly Delayed

The second part of my busiest week ever was submitting fourth quarter and final grades for the year. Grading and report cards are the most loathed part of my job as an art teacher. Although I make every effort to be fair in my assessment of student effort and achievement, I always wonder- isn’t there a better way?

In our school system we currently grade on a four point scale. Each student receives an effort grade and an achievement grade once a semester, as well as final grades at the end of the year. Here is how we are supposed to reach our grades according to the handbook we receive during our first year of art teaching:

Achievement Grades in Art
Did you:
• follow the sequence of directions for the lesson?
• meet the objectives of the lesson?
• complete the project in the time allowed?
• go beyond the minimum requirements?
• use good craftsmanship?

Effort Grades in Art
Did you:
• behave properly in the art room?
• put forth best effort?
• follow art class rules?
• work safely?”

While I understand the importance of assessment in the art program, I am not completely on board with this method of assessment. Art work is difficult to grade, because we are grading a creative work that is personal to the individual that created it. Many parents wonder how we arrive at the grade they see on a report card. Usually when a parent is concerned about their child’s grade in my class, they quickly defend the student’s work, stating that they did their best. I always explain that I assess based on how neatly and completely a student followed directions, as well as whether they participated in the lesson and included all of the concepts that were addressed in the lesson. If I ask students to create a landscape painting of a Virginia region that illustrates painting from background to foreground, illustrates illusions of depth through overlapping, size & placement, and demonstrates at least four different painting techniques, including sgraffito, then when I assess the painting I look for those concepts specifically. I am not grading the artwork based on whether I personally like the way it looks or would I hang it on my wall at home. Instead, I have been instructed by my school system to focus solely on the evaluation criteria set forth in the lesson. For the student’s effort grade, I focus on what I have seen from the student overall in my class- does the student try their best? Did they stay focused and attempt to meet the criteria of the lesson? I approach grading in this way because that is how I have been instructed to. I am not grading based on how the artwork looks, only on whether the student followed the very specific instructions of the lesson.

The trouble here is that I want my students to feel confident in my art room. I want them to trust that if they take a risk and it turns out to be a flop, that the risk was the important part- not the final product. I want to encourage my students to grow creatively, and I know that many of my students are more focused on these specific letter grades, rather than the creative process and their own personal growth. Sometimes my students make beautiful, creative and unique artwork, but their work doesn’t illustrate all of the concepts that it was supposed to include. Sometimes students work so hard on one area of their work that they forget about the other criteria. They make fantastic work, but their grade does not reflect this. And it works the other way too- every once in a while I have a student who appears to be wasting the majority of their class time, but when I grade their work, they have included everything required by the evaluation criteria. When asked to add more, push farther or do something extra, they are completely unwilling and unmotivated to do so. And the worst is the student that says “That’s ok, a C is fine.” These students don’t see grades as an opportunity for personal growth. THey are not learning about themselves from the grade on the report card. They are not being inspired to learn more and grow as an artist by looking at a tiny letter in a box.

Each semester, I slave away filling out little scan sheets for each of my 500 students, and every time I am reassured that this method is a terrible one. I don’t believe that my students really understand more about themselves from the grades they receive on their report card.  I don’t believe that one letter is enough to show a parent how much their child has learned or how well they learned it. Those grades don’t tell a parent how brave or creative or clever their child was. They are just a letter, and as long as that letter is A or B, I don’t hear anything else from the parent or the student about the grade ever again. I have yet to receive a call or email from a parent asking me how I thought their child had grown in art class, or whether there was a specific area that should be addressed at home when a child received an A or B in art. I think the A or B on a report card is received as some sort of pass. “Don’t worry about it, there is nothing else your child needs to strive for in art this quarter. See you again in another nine weeks!”

Our school system is currently revamping their grading system, and when I had the opportunity to sit in on a focus group regarding the new and “improved” report cards I jumped at the chance. When I saw the draft of the new report cards, my heart sank. Instead of four possible letter grades for effort and achievement, we will be giving one of four possible number grades in four different achievement categories, and one for effort.

Here are the proposed categories:

  • Engages in the creative process to develop artworks
  • Uses art media and techniques appropriately to produce artworks
  • Expresses meaning in artworks in a variety of ways
  • Applies an understanding of art history, culture, criticism, and aesthetics when making and discussing artworks

Possible grades for each category have been broken down as so:

Explanation of Marks:

3 – Meets all concepts and skills of standard taught this quarter

2 – Meets most concepts and skills of standard taught this quarter

1 – Does not meet most concepts and skills taught this quarter

3e – Extends standard – Meets and uniquely extends standard

na – Not taught

/ – Introduced but not assessed

While I am happy to see that the variety of ways a student can achieve success in art class is being broken down into a wider variety of categories than “Achievement” I still don’t think that giving a 1, 2, 3, or 3e in each category is the best way to encourage student learning and academic growth.

Grading has been brought up a few times in my Twitter feed recently, and I’m glad to see there are other teachers out there who are interested in changing this outdated and ineffective system. I don’t have a perfect solution, and I’m not sure anyone else does yet either, but there is a great discussion going on about changes in assessment and grading policies, and I am glad to be a part of that discussion. Here are some links to a few blog posts that I have stumbled on regarding grading and assessment over the past few weeks:While this is more specific, giving the parents more information regarding how their students is doing in a wider variety of categories, it doesn’t solve the number problem at all. I see this as a step in a better direction, but a much smaller step than I was hoping for.

NAEA Monthly Mentor guest blogger Rosie Riordan regarding assessment in art education : http://naea.typepad.com/naea/2010/07/how-does-writing-about-art-help-students-in-the-assessment-process.html


Suggestions for Abolishing Grading by Joe Bower http://www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-grading.html includes links to many other posts by Bower regarding grading and why we need to focus on formative assessment.

I’ll be working toward portfolio creation with my students beginning next year and I hope that I can find a balance between giving the grades required on report cards while encouraging student creative growth in my classroom.

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