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    Memphis arts teachers pilot method to measure student progress

    Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal -

    First-graders at Idlewild Elementary routinely floss their brains with imaginary thread to clear the gunk before art class starts.

    Leading the show last week was art teacher David Mah, one of 500 teachers of the arts in Memphis City Schools whose work is getting national attention.

    In a pilot last year, the teachers proved you don't need tests to prove students are learning art techniques. Instead the work is judged by a blind faculty peer review.

    "We definitely like this idea more," said Mah. "This is fairer. They were trying to make it relevant to what we do."

    Unlike courses like math and English, there are no standardized tests to gauge the effectiveness of arts teachers.At Idlewild, Mah will compile a digital portfolio of his students' work, including video, showing how students of various abilities progressed through the year. At the end, he'll give himself a score based on their progress.

    If the art teachers reviewing his portfolio agree within one point, only one review is required. If not, Mah's portfolio gets a second or third review and he will take the average of the scores, which count as 35 percent of his evaluation.

    All theater, arts, dance and music teachers in the district will do the same.

    "One of the reasons this model is so exciting is that it mirrors the results we see from TVAAS (Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System) in the distributions of scores," said Sara Heyburn, assistant state commissioner of education.

    Heyburn and Dru Davison, MCS arts administrator, presented the findings in Washington in late August to a gathering of Race to the Top states assessing ways to measure growth in non-tested subjects. "It was really exciting because Tennessee is leading in this area," Heyburn said. "There is a lot of interest around this model."

    In an era where teacher jobs are tied to test scores, it suddenly become a gamble to teach music, art, physical education, even foreign language, because they don't come with standardized tests. For now, Tennessee gives these teachers their schools' averages, which can mean they are evaluated on students they have never met.

    That won't happen in arts classrooms in Memphis this year, and 31 other districts in Tennessee that sent arts teachers to Nashville for training this summer, says Davison, who is fielding a flurry of calls.

    "We're hearing from all kinds of people," he said. "Every state that received Race to the Top money or applied for a No Child Left Behind waiver is having to deal with the same question."

    The state board of education approved the plan this summer. Last week, superintendents across the state received formal notification.

    By second semester this school year, the state plans to test the arts model developed here for other non-tested subjects. "From a state perspective, we want to provide options," Heyburn said. "We really want to allow districts discretion to choose."

    With about $23,000, Davison and 40 Memphis arts teachers wrote a four-page guide for what peer reviewers should see in student work in 40 disciplines, from marching band to jazz band, then contracted with Hope Street Group — which describes itself as "a new generation of leaders dedicated to building an Opportunity Economy" — to learn how to do "purposeful sampling."

    "If the reviewers don't see a representative sample, they send the portfolio back."

    Until the plan was approved, he says he found himself constantly defending it against those who prefer tests to show what students know.

    "In arts alone, we have 55 courses," he said. "It's insane for someone to suggest we develop standardized tests for non-tested subjects. We'd have a test for beginning band, intermediate band, jazz band, music theory, AP music theory, show choir, senior choir, swing choir, chamber music … Even if we had unlimited funding to create these tests, we would still have a huge problem in creating standardization for the arts. It's a bad idea."

    The U.S. Department of Education suggests other measures, including that the principal make the final determination of student progress.

    "How is someone not trained in the art of dance able to determine appropriate growth rates toward the standards?" Davison asks.

    "This is a very important conversation because the integrity of the teacher profession is on the line, if we, as teachers, can't identify quality measures of teacher effectiveness."