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Art assessment in South Australia.

The afternoon sun beat on the tin roof of the Agricultural Fairground Exhibition Hall, raising the inside temperature into the high 80s. On this occasion, the heat is not directed on prize vegetables or country baking, but rather on artwork--artwork arranged on the walls, on shelves and tables and hanging from wooden rafters. Two men thread their way through this collection. Dressed in shorts and knee socks and armed with clipboards and pens, they look as if they might be customs officers. They are, in fact, moderators, responsible for adjusting the scores awarded to students by their teachers for their performance in grade 12 art. This is the Riverland in South Australia. It is early November and scenes like these occur in towns and districts across the state as grade 12 assessment gets under way.

Formal examination of student art is not a familiar practice in North America. American reactions to the idea are likely to run from outright rejection, on the grounds that comparisons among artworks are invalid, to confusion about the relationship of benefits to costs. In other parts of the world, examination (or more accurately, assessment) in art is taken for granted. England, Scotland, Holland, New Zealand and Australia are examples of countries that have devised means to determine whether or not system-wide goals have been met. Teachers estimate the degree of success achieved by each of the students (assessment) and each teacher's estimates are checked externally and adjusted, if necessary, to bring them into line with other teachers' marks (moderation).

In South Australia, this takes place near the end of the school year, in October and November. Twelve months before this, grade n students will have consulted with their teachers to determine what kinds of projects they will undertake in grade 12. They may elect to take art as a Publicly Examined Subject (PES), which will be accepted by universities as an entrance requirement, or they may take it as a School Assessed Subject (SAS). The main difference in content between the two routes is that art history and criticism form part of the PES program, but not the SAS program.

By October of their grade 12 year, students will have selected their best efforts for display from the work they have completed over the year. Whatever fears there might be that assessment could promote teaching to a formula do not survive in face of the diversity, originality and personal interpretation seen in the student work. A visitor might also be struck by the exceptional technical quality of the artwork.

Students set up their own displays, sometimes in the artroom or school gymnasium, sometimes in community complexes, fairgrounds or other public spaces. Students often work over the weekend or in the evenings to prepare and hang their work. The teacher inspects the work and enters a score for each student. The teacher uses as criteria, the objectives set up by student and teacher at the end of the grade 11 year. The teacher also uses a workbook or folder of material submitted by the student as evidence of sustained development of a theme, or of exploratory study related to the exhibited work.

A day or two later, over fifty moderators arrive. They work in pairs, driving and even flying to the most remote corners of the state. Teachers who volunteer are appointed to be moderators yearly. Because a teacher might be a moderator today whose students' work is being moderated tomorrow, there is little profit in being aggressive or uncompromising in the role of moderator. Often, visits are opportunities to renew acquaintances and crises are rare.

In mid-October, moderators participate in a one-day familiarization exercise, involving a benchmark school, to assist in adjusting marks. This school volunteers to have its work moderated before any of the others. The school's teachers work with a small group of senior moderators to produce a scale reflective of the relative excellence of each student's performance. Photographs are taken of the work and photocopies of them are put into booklets. All the moderators are then invited to view the exhibited work and familiarize themselves with it. They make notes to themselves in their booklets and work toward a clear understanding of each student's work in relation to his or her classmates.

When moderators visit a school armed with these benchmark scores, they can readily see that a teacher may be marking too leniently or too severely. Moderators normally do not change the rank order of student marks. If they do, they tell the teacher their intention and ask whether there is a reason that the order is organized the way it is. I observed one situation where the teacher produced sufficient reason to convince the moderators that the initial rank order ought to stand.

When the two moderators finish their inspection, they invite the teacher in and discuss their adjustments. Even in cases where marks are adjusted below the teacher's original estimate, it is very unusual for a teacher to heartily disagree with a moderated mark. Sometimes the teacher admits that the original mark may have been based more on the student's personal qualities than on the work. At other times, the teacher might overestimate the individual students' actual abilities when impressed with the attitude of an entire class.

Chances are that the show will be officially opened to parents and friends following moderation and the moderators will be invited to attend. Early next morning, the moderating team will be on its way, following the Murray river out of the citrus orchards and into the scrubland, or mallee. Their next stop may be a community school at the end of a dusty, unpaved stretch of backroad where only two students are exhibiting. In this case, they will probably arrange to visit other schools during the day and their circuit will be complete in approximately a week.

The works that most impress the moderators are requested for exhibition in a state-wide show of student work in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Most country schools take a bus trip to Adelaide for this exhibition, combining it with visits to post-secondary art colleges and public art galleries. Art teachers recognize the value of these exhibitions, both as public relations exercises and as an incentive to younger students. It is an honor to have a work selected for exhibition, particularly in small country schools.

The present system of assessment and moderation has been in place in South Australia for less than ten years. Several teachers feel that the quality of work at the state-wide exhibition has improved each year since its inception. I suspect that this may be tree for individual schools as well. A case in point: the workbooks created by students encompassing topics from the history of Australian film to the use of art forms on postage stamps, are often exhaustively researched and exquisitely presented. One of these, featuring the work of two nineteenth century stonemasons so impressed me that I made a hundred-mile detour to locate the village where this fine work was produced. This kind of informative, innovative product is far removed from the confines of what we have traditionally thought of as a response to examination in art.

This month's "Focus" presents an approach to the controversial issue of assessment that is quite unlike any practiced in American schools. Dr. Ron MacGregor has just returned from an extensive visit to Australia. His observations and comments provide insight into one method of assessing student performance at the secondary level.

Editor's note: The student artworks reproduced for this article are from the Higher School Certificate Examination administered by the Department of Education, New South Wales Government. Photographs were taken by Erdley Lancaster and provided by Margaret Bishop, Visual Arts Consultant, Directorate of Studies in the NSW Department of Education.

Ronald MacGregor is Head, Visual and Performing Arts in Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:evaluation of student art
Author:MacGregor, Ronald N.
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Fortunate is a state of mind.
Next Article:Art education in Australia.

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