Assessing Without Grades

I’ve never talked with anyone who could explain an objective grading system for the art room. Our culture is littered with phrases that reinforce the idea that no one knows what beauty is, or how to assess it. Have you said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” or maybe you prefer, “There is no accounting for taste.” This semester, I delivered a lecture entitled, “Judges smoke crack.” All of these are attempts to explain the idea that it is very difficult to systematically assess visual arts projects. No one is ever happy with the outcomes. Should an art teacher assess effort? Should final product be the only item of importance? I’m not sure. Honestly, I’m not even sure that the grades I entered last week or last year are accurate or important assessments of my student’s knowledge or ability in visual arts.

Something had to change.

After lots of blog reading, I decided to try an experiment in my classroom this quarter. In each class, I would only be assessing through conferencing with students and writing short paragraphs explaining their growth. My ultimate goal is to share my little paragraph with parents on a regular basis so that they can have a reliable account of what is happening in my classroom.

For my first project using this system, I taught linear perspective. As a class we took notes, and practiced drawing cubes, then street corners. When I was mostly sure that the students could proceed to independent work, I asked them to prove that they understood linear perspective with an art project. If the student had interacted with the lecture, notes, and practice, they should need very little help proving their knowledge. It worked. Not only did students create some of the best perspective projects I’d seen, they also were very handy with the material.

When it came time to assess the project, I distributed a worksheet for the students to develop their responses to my questions. Each student was asked, “How would you use this project to teach someone else the system of linear perspective?” A separate question asked, “What will make your project a show winner?” Each question had some vocabulary listed to help prompt a reasonable response. I called students to my desk, and discussed their answers. I only had one student who did not learn the material. This was due to absences. Some students were ready to teach a lesson on perspective, and others new only basics, but almost everyone had learned the material. I had several students who could not create show-winning work, but I had expected this result. What I had not expected was the level of learning.

If I had only assessed show-winning (beautiful) work, like in the past, I would have missed the opportunity to really know how many students understood linear perspective.

What I want this to look like in my classroom next year.

  1. Classroom Art Standards will be discussed in connection with each assignment.
  2. Students will write and verbally discuss their assessments on at least 50% of their projects.
  3. Students will blog about their projects so that parents can see semi-daily progress.
  4. Parents will be contacted when students meet a classroom standard.
  5. Grades will only be given when necessary at Quarters and Semesters. Arrived at in conference with student after considering standards met during projects.
  6. Every project will have a specific due date. Previously, I let projects go on indefinitely. This worked when grades were assigned on a variable day of reckoning. Without a numeric grade, students were not motivated to finish projects after they had proven their knowledge of the content.
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About Mr. Miller

I teach Visual Arts in La Junta, Colorado. I am also an artist and printmaker. But more importantly, I am a husband and father to a beautiful and inspiring family.
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