MAEIA: Looking Back

By Kathy Dewsbury-White

This is part one of a two-part series that looks back and looks forward at the purposes and achievements of the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment (MAEIA) project. Read part two published in January 2021.

Retired arts consultant from the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), Ana Cardona, says, “MAEIA is a project involving an unlikely set of suspects who assembled to realize what became the largest catalogue of quality curriculum-embedded K-12 arts performance assessments in the nation.”

With a one-time legislative appropriation, MDE engaged the Michigan Assessment Consortium (MAC) — at the time, a young non-profit, non-partisan assessment-focused grass-roots organization—to develop what we were calling “model interim assessments for the arts.” Our collective belief was that arts teachers needed quality measures to assess student achievement and growth for the purpose of adding to the required portfolio used to determine teacher effectiveness. To MDE’s credit, the leaders commissioning MAC granted us the freedom to construct all elements needed to accompany a catalogue of assessments, including all the following:

  • Blueprint for quality arts programming
  • Research and recommendations compendium supporting the Blueprint
  • Program Review Tool to gauge the status of the district or buildings arts programming
  • Door-stop-weighted assessment specifications document
  • Ultimately, the lovingly assembled catalogue of 360 performance assessments that underwent all of the traditional standardized test development protocols:
    • training for item developer;
    • content review;
    • a complicated statewide field test, requiring military-style supply chain management;
    • revisions subsequent to field test;
    • selection of student exemplars;
    • development of a well-designed interactive archive in a website for public use; and, of course,
    • training to administer, use, and make sense of the assessment information.

Click here to explore these resources.

MAC is an organization led by practitioners (assessment, curriculum, instruction, professional learning and organizational development), and to this end our promise to a client like MDE tends to have two parts: 1) we will create the resource and 2) we will commit to designing how to engage teachers and administrators in using it. The second part of the promise is what has kept the unlikely partner, the MAC, committed and connected to the MAEIA project in 2020.

Looking back over the past eight years, I identify three beliefs that account for the MAC’s commitment to functioning like the little engine that could for this project. I’ll share these through my personal experiences.

Belief #1 — Assessment is the engine of learning

My formal training is curriculum, and that’s where I spent 25 years of my professional life (focusing on what we should teach). But ten years into that life it, became clear that cognitive science was complicated and the business of understanding what a student knows and can do—and what motivates them to explore, persist, and learn—was the engine that permitted us access to the student’s brain and, in curriculum-speak, permitted us to enact “curriculum aspirations.” Assessment has a variety of purposes; the curriculum person will use assessment for program improvement and to build professional learning opportunities for teachers. I believe, however, the most important purpose of assessment is at the nexus of teacher and student to create the interactions that support learning and creation of assessment opportunities that motivate, challenge, and excite the learner.

Belief #2 — Building performance assessments is a joyful enterprise

Truth!  Performance assessments invite students to solve open-ended problems, engage in discussion and debate, write for genuine audiences and purposes, conduct research, and engage in experimental inquiry. An arts performance assessment is THE means that authentically permits the student to show what they know and can do. We can build them in a way that celebrates individual student strengths, and they are the vital conduit that provides information to the artist about their effort. Creating a well-constructed performance assessment does require technical skill, rigorous analysis, using what we know about children developmentally, and, most enjoyably, mining our own knowledge of the discipline in order to capture the student in a way that makes them not want to miss out on the challenge presented. We all want to engage in meaningful, purposeful work.  For an educator, making a solid performance assessment is our expression of art created for our students.

Belief #3 — All human beings benefit from the arts; the creative process can be taught; and arts are an essential part of a public education

I grew up with privilege: white, upper middle class, attending a well-resourced school district. Arts in school were taught from kindergarten through high school. I had access to four disciplines and engaged with three. I had private music lessons, took additional drawing and painting workshops through community education, and danced in a private studio setting. By high school, I was a somewhat disinterested academic but a highly motivated arts student. I was inspired to attend college to be a music student. I haven’t worked as a practicing artist, but there is a large part of me that understands how to activate my own creative process. I find this is central to sustaining my personal and professional well-being. Like for many children, a connection to an art form is what made school interesting and worthwhile for me. And unlike for me, exposure to arts for many children will be limited to the school day. Tragically, as school funding has faltered and school accountability has been linked to literacy and math test scores, arts programming is the easy sacrifice; there are proportionally fewer arts teachers and advocates as part of the total school staff to lobby for retention of arts curriculum for K-12 grades. Poor public policy has hurt a couple of generations of students in Michigan as we continue to under-resource schools and undervalue arts education.

Of all of the professional causes and endeavors that have presented themselves over the years, this one—fighting to reclaim access to quality arts education programming as part of a public education for every child—continues to be an imperative. And, therefore, the MAC and MAEIA work hard to support this effort through a full menu of resources and activities for arts educators.

Learn more in the next post by Kathy, “Looking Forward,” coming in January.

Kathy Dewsbury-White is President and CEO of the Michigan Assessment Consortium and Project Director for the MAEIA project, serving as a resource wrangler who identifies and combines people, organizations, and material resources to make things happen.

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