Lately I've been getting involved with some parent organizations concerned with the expansion of "high-stakes" testing in public schools. One of the themes in the discussions has been that the arts in schools are being diminished and frozen out because there are no standardized tests for them. The B-School mantra "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" has spawned a correlate: "If you can't measure it, it's not worth doing," and as a result public schools have all but eliminated art, music, and drama. Now, fresh from the Department of Be Careful What You Wish For, the forces of high-stakes testing have decided that they can measure art after all, and have begun agitating for the same sorts of tests we're seeing for math and English.
Noted education scholar/writer Diane Ravitch has a piece on her blog here taking another education writer named Sara Mead to task on this subject, but I think Ravitch doesn't go quite far enough. Accordingly, I wrote a polite letter to Mead offering constructive criticism, a copy of which is below.
Dr. Ms Mead,
Your defense of attempts at standardizing arts curricula and imposing standardized tests is astonishing in its ignorance of the purpose of the arts in schools and what it means to be "proficient" in the arts. Put simply, the purpose of doing art is doing art. It may have other cognitive, psychological benefits, which may in some way be measurable, but to emphasize those benefits and convert them into the main purpose for doing art is to strip art of its essence and turn it into yet one more bit of drudgery imposed on children who are already subject to far too much of that.
I don't know whether or not you are actually proficient in any sort of art or performance (apart from the obvious role as an impersonator of someone with serious views), but if you are, consider what that has brought you as a human being and ask yourself what you would lose if it were converted to yet another classroom chore. I say all this as someone who has spent most of his career measuring and monitoring performance, productivity, and outputs of public agencies, and who has also been a musician all his life. I have also been an active "consumer" of culture (high, low, and in-between) all my life. None of this [capacity to do and appreciate arts*] came about through rigid, test centered curricula, nor could it have. It came about through being immersed in culture (i.e. going to museums, galleries, performances, etc. and doing art and music for pleasure with family, classmates, and friends), and guided through this immersion by people who loved what they were experiencing.
*my original letter left out this clause, but I'm adding it here to make the point a little clearer.