Is strict criteria in performing arts assessment at HE level creating products or performers?
‘An assessment is a consideration about someone or something and a judgement about them.’
The oxford dictionary provides the above definition of assessment, and whilst accurate, I can’t help but find the word ‘judgement’ to be particularly jarring. It is an accepted and respected fact that education should bestow far more than subject area expertise on learners. Teachers, tutors and lecturers all inevitably impose morals and values onto their students, hopefully creating compassionate, forward thinking individuals with an open mindset and a passion for accumulating new knowledge. Surely it is not unreasonable to say that in order to achieve these well-rounded outlooks, the best educators across the globe instil an understanding of the importance of not casting judgement on others. As we strive to create an inclusive learning environment, accepting of all faiths, genders, races and abilities, is there not then an irony in the strict criteria that we judge each of these individuals on in assessments?
We are assessed for almost the entirety of our lives from conception. Prenatal assessments monitor our development in the womb, postnatal assessments measure our progress by tracking our hearing, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, food intake, weight, speech…the list is endless. We are assessing newborns against well researched and unanimously agreed criteria for physical health, and predetermined criteria will continue to assess our success, or lack of, as we enter the education system. Standardised tests in mathematics and reading skills measure young learners achievements and rank them against a national average. And whilst we label these particular subjects as ‘core’ to educational development, perceived underachievement creates a sense of failure and a closed mindset in our learners from a very young age. Arguably these core subjects are accurately measurable as participants are expected to arrive at one correct answer. The same cannot be said for creative arts, and herein lies my first point of interest when addressing assessment in these areas:
The arts specialise in creating innovative and exceptionally personal products. Poetry, dance, music, fiction and numerous other art forms can incite social change, question current political structures and question engrained prejudice, and this infinite potential would suggest an immeasurable worth. When one piece of theatre boasts the possibility to both inspire and offend, how can we standardise its worth?
I teach in further education at BTEC extended diploma level, and like all educators a large majority of my learner contact time is specifically geared towards preparing them for assessment. We spend the first session of each of their eighteen units (soon to be thirteen under a new structure) addressing the very precise criteria laid out by exam body Pearson’s to achieve a pass, merit or distinction. Throughout the entirety of the unit we will consistently refer back to these criteria to ensure that every learner has a very clear understanding of the expectations they should be meeting. As the unit concludes the learners will be assessed, usually by submitting their written work, completing any practical performance elements of the unit which will be recorded and submitted along with sporadic recordings of weekly sessions to evidence participation and progress. If the unit is internally marked I will then sit with these recordings, written submissions and Pearson’s criteria and individually assess each learner. Earlier in this paragraph I mentioned the ‘very precise criteria’, and I wish to discuss these further now. Each unit will usually have four to six learning outcomes, and each learning outcome has criteria for achieving a pass, merit or distinction. The wording of these criteria is specific, yet also very much open to personal interpretation. For example, Pearson’s BTEC Level Three Unit 101: Singing Techniques for Performance, learning outcome five assessment criteria states:
‘Pass – ‘Perform a programme of songs’
Merit – ‘Perform a programme of songs competently’
Distinction – ‘Perform a programme of songs with confidence and flair’
There are further paragraphs which expand on these phrases, but the wording is equally ambiguous. The elongated distinction criteria reads
‘In performance learners will demonstrate a high degree of technical ability, musicality, assurance and style.’
But so much of this is open to personal interpretation. To elaborate, a character song from a piece of contemporary musical theatre is quite likely to employ the voice quality twang, to add a certain Americanised humour to the performance. However, if a learners acting through song abilities are high, that humour can be conveyed effectively whilst singing safely using a different voice quality, but whilst one audience member may find the performance fresh and original, another may believe the absence of expected twang has removed the vocal style of the piece and therefore distinction criteria has not been met. It is also important to note at this point that a learner could achieve distinction across four of the unit’s learning outcomes, and a pass for the fifth, and the marking scheme would result in an overall pass for the entire unit. In BTEC the lowest grade is always accepted, which carries more serious concerns that will be addressed later. Is it fair then that one individuals perception of a performance directly affects a young performers final outcome in their qualification? In an ideal world it may be that my colleagues and I would mark our own units and then reflect upon each other’s given grades, watching assessment footage from an impartial viewpoint and offering an average input for discrepancies sake, but there are simply not enough hours in the week. Inevitably once I have marked all learners assessments, I will look at the grades as a whole, and begin to wonder whether the distinction I have awarded one student was really a ‘better’ performance than the merit I awarded one of their peers, and suddenly I am standardising my learners by averaging them out amongst themselves. Suddenly it seems that all personalised aspects of their performances are being levelled off as I desperately try to ensure my marking methods are ‘fair’ and ‘impartial’. During my undergraduate studies all written work was submitted anonymously through an online system, but of course I will never be able to my own students work mark completely impartially as the majority are practical assessments. Like all educators I am a human being and naturally and inevitably build relationships with my learners during their studies. As well as my lecturing role I act as ‘lead tutor’ for year one musical theatre students, which means I deal with their pastoral care and can get to know them and their family situations well. On reflection, it would be a far more preferable and impartial approach if lecturers were to mark the assessments of other staff in the department, however as a relatively small performing arts department the resources again are simply not available. For example I am the only singing specialist on the staff team, therefore it must be considered whether it is more beneficial for our learners to have staff members teaching and marking their units, rather than losing subject expertise for complete impartiality. However it does seem like this particular issue is currently being addressed as we move into the new BTEC structure this year within which a much larger number of the units are now externally assessed. This eliminates the problem of impartiality but does not deflect from the issue of personal preference in performance.
It is also important to address the ever changing face of the arts, and the diverse nature of current industry trends. By appeasing our concerns of unfair grading by comparing all learners with their peers, or past assessments, we are essentially levelling out the playing field – creating an average or a norm by which to measure each and every performer. And this is a very real concern when the arts prides itself on its multicultural, multi disciplinary and fully inclusive ethos. What is any art from if not a very personal form of self expression? And how can it then be said that we are effectively training practitioners if we are creating a standardised form that each individual must aspire to?
Of course, there are unarguably numerous benefits to assessment at FE and HE level. Learners entering further education straight from secondary at 16 years old would be understandably a little lost if their educators were to advise them there would be no formal assessment throughout their qualification. Having spent their entire educational lives working towards clearly outlined criteria the freedom of independent learning and assessment would be daunting and directionless. Even now, with both undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications and having worked in structured, formal education for several years, I have struggled as a learner to adapt to the freedom of study that has accompanied my research based masters degree. There are learning criteria that I know I must demonstrate in my writing, however the lack of set essay questions threw me considerably. I would confidently begin to research and write in an area of interest and almost immediately deviate, discovering new threads of thought and tangents of ideas before rewording my given question and inevitably following the exact same cycle. Progress seemed painfully slow, and whilst I had done a wealth of reading and writing of initial and divergent musings, any movement forward was immeasurable, because I was constantly unsure of my end goal. I craved meticulously defined targets and felt disheartened by my perceived lack of progress. There is an undeniable sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment when measurable targets are met or surpassed, and this can release of endorphines can play a crucial role in a personals engagement with education. Any past time that creates a positive sense of achievement is obviously far more enjoyable than one that crates confusion and frustration. Of course, it could be argued here that learners may experience the latter negative emotions if they feel they are underachieving in assessments, or that the given criteria and targets set for them are unrealistic of their capabilities.