Formative Assessment and Fine Arts Education: Embracing Assessment to Support Student Needs

By Tara Kintz

Editor’s Note

This is the second of a three part blog series by Tara Kintz exploring the intersections of formative assessment and the fine arts. In this blog she prompts us to think about how assessment can cultivate student safety and connection. At the end of the blog you will see an invitation to join the Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators (FAME) Arts team. Enjoy!

~ Joni Starr


The current context of our world has had an unprecedented impact on students’ experience in schools and has elevated the importance of addressing the social emotional reality and well-being for all students. There is an increasing need for approaches to instruction and assessment that meet students where they are and support them in their learning. The fine arts addresses these social emotional needs in a number of ways, including teaching to the whole child, individualized approaches, self-efficacy, and collaborative learning. These approaches also align naturally with the formative assessment process.

Assessment has not traditionally been viewed as a means to cultivate a sense of safety and connection.  The formative assessment process, however, especially in the fine arts, has the potential to support student learning in ways that help students feel safe and connected to others in the classroom. Also, a balanced approach to assessment involves a clear purpose for the use of evidence of student understanding. In this way, assessment evidence can be a powerful tool to inform teaching and learning while engaging with students. And a shift in mindset, one that places the student at the center of the assessment process, is key to realizing ambitious and meaningful outcomes for all students. The fine arts classroom is a perfectly suited place to explore these ideas of assessment supporting student needs. The following questions guide this conversation:

  • What is balanced assessment?
  • How can the assessment process create a sense of safety and connection?
  • What mindset is needed to place students at the center of the assessment process?

What is balanced assessment?

When assessment practices are balanced, it means that there is a balance between two types of assessment: assessment for learning and assessment of learning.

o   Assessment for learning – assessment carried out during instruction by teachers. This includes the ongoing decisions and adjustments to teaching and learning that happen in the classroom to support and advance learning. This is also known as the formative assessment process.

o   Assessments of learning – assessment carried out at the conclusion of instruction (for example an instructional unit, marking period, or the end of the school year). This should provide an accurate representation of student learning and achievement that is used to benefit students.

In the visual arts classroom teachers inherently assess the process of art-making one step at a time. For example, in a painting assignment the teacher begins with sharing a clear learning target of brush stroke technique. Students can then help to identify success criteria for effective use of the brush stroke technique. Throughout this lesson, the teacher uses the formative assessment process, or assessment for learning, in an ongoing feedback loop as students move themselves toward the learning target. Then, at the end of the unit, the teacher will have the students complete a summative assessment, or an assessment of learning, to demonstrate their use of the brush stroke technique. Both assessments for learning and of learning are important parts of a balanced assessment system and balancing the use of the formative assessment process daily, with periodic use of interim and final assessments of content, creates the potential for strong growth in student learning in the arts.

How can the assessment process create a sense of safety and connection?

Assessment can provide an important opportunity to create a sense of safety and connection for students. Through the formative assessment process, teachers can be attuned to students’ social-emotional realities and ways to promote key components of emotional and social learning, such as curiosity, creativity, clarity, critical thinking, motivation, and executive function. Students can also focus on where they are going in their learning and be reassured that they will have the tools and support needed to reach those learning goals.

With formative assessment, students will understand the progression of learning and that wherever they are in the learning process is exactly where they need to be because that is where they are. The focus will be on the next step needed to move their learning forward. By focusing on ideas and student thinking, the teacher communicates that there is not the threat of getting an answer wrong and what is most important is how a student arrived at a particular idea or the creative process they used. This lifts a burden from the student and creates a sense of safety and support. The students learn that the teacher values ideas and the process that leads to a particular response or answer. Rather than provide an evaluation of a student’s response, the successful arts teacher may ask the student to share more about his or her thinking and/or the teacher may invite other students to share their ideas on the same topic.

The best arts teachers create a judgment free zone in their classroom where every individual student is valued for who they are inherently and what they bring to the table creatively. In particular, an effective theatre class fully engages in warm ups focused on building trust and community so that students feel safe in risk taking with their creative ideas. The teacher continues to foster a supportive learning environment by engaging in dialogue with students as a check in for students’ emotional state and progress in their learning. As they engage in the creative process, the teacher poses questions that support original thinking and expression, and the information gathered from students is then used to support students’ individual needs.

What mindset is needed to place students at the center of the assessment process?

Effective implementation of the formative assessment process involves a change in mindset and a shift in the view of the role of the student. Rather than assessment as something that happens to students, assessment is seen as something that happens with students. This shift allows the teacher to work with students and to create a dialogue in which the students feel a sense of agency and ownership in their learning.

This placing of students in the center of the assessment process aligns perfectly with the fine and performing arts classroom. In the music class students are asked to interpret a piece of music according to their own skills and ideas. In the theatre class students bring characters to life based on their individual interpretation of the script and dialogue. In the dance class students choreograph based on personal experiences and in the art class students fill an empty canvas with images from their mind. Expecting students to be creators and turn thoughts into things asks the teacher to shift their idea of assessment towards the student and their unique abilities.

These assessment practices can then lead to increased student engagement, learning, and achievement. Such student-centered approaches promote a sense of belonging and competence. A sense of ownership supports students so they can attain enhanced learning outcomes. As a result, teachers become facilitators of learning, reframing the dynamic from teaching to students to teaching with students, embracing each of them as capable young learners rich in culture, creativity, and compassion.

Arts educators can address the learning needs of all students through safety and connection by using the formative assessment process.  As students engage in practice toward a specific learning target and receive ongoing support from the teacher and peers, they have the opportunity to develop a sense of competence, autonomy, and belonging. Then, students are able to demonstrate their ability in the arts through a summative assessment. Such a balanced approach to assessment enables the teacher and the student to focus on the learning and the next steps needed that is essential to develop their abilities in the fine arts. A mindset that focuses on working alongside students, prioritizes student self-directed learning, and places student involvement at the center of instruction; then,  assessment holds great promise for all students to achieve their highest potential in the arts.


 Join the FAME Arts team

Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators (FAME) is a statewide initiative to promote educator understanding and use of the formative assessment process. The FAME program is based on the belief that significant change in professional practice requires work over several years, supported by internal and external resources. Educators work together in professional learning communities (PLCs) to engage in collective inquiry, learning, and implementation of the formative assessment process. FAME and MAEIA together support educators to skillfully navigate rigorous arts education and social-emotional learning within instruction and assessment.

Sharpen your skills in deepening students’ thinking by joining the state-wide arts team in the Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators program.

Relevant Resources

Ferreira, M., Martinsone, B., & Talić, S. (2020). Promoting sustainable social emotional learning at school through relationship-centered learning environment, teaching methods and formative assessment. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 22(1), 21-36.

Wiliam, D. (2007, June). What does research say the benefits of formative assessment are? NCTM Research Brief. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Retrieved from Briefs_and_Clips/brief_form_assessment.pdf

Photo credits: George Mason University, Dreamstime, and istock photo.

Tara works as a research associate at the Michigan Assessment Consortium where she integrates 20 years of experience as an educator and administrator in reform contexts to inform K-12 schooling and teacher education. She is actively involved in research and curriculum development to support educators to promote student engagement and counter inequities in education. She is currently working on research and the development of resources to give educators the tools they need to effectively implement the formative assessment process.

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