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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

Applying OBE to Arts Education

Through careful experimentation and dialogue, Minnesota's State Arts High School has implemented outcome-based education and authentic performance assessment.

Adopting an outcome-based system at Minnesota's State Arts High School has resulted in sweeping changes that include, yet go far beyond, curriculum reorganization, ungraded report cards, and a revised daily schedule. While working to create a sound and workable framework for learning and assessment, every person in our school—teachers, administrators, and students—has been forced to rethink and reinvestigate the meaning and value of education.
What constitutes A work? How many times must a student complete a task to prove mastery of it? What is the ideal length of time for a class period? How do teachers motivate their students without traditional grades?
These and countless other questions have dominated our meetings, conversations, and thoughts for more than four years. The Arts High School, which opened its doors in 1989, is part of the Minnesota Center for Arts Education. It is a public high school invested by the Minnesota legislature with the dual task of educating talented young artists while developing an outcome-based system to serve as a model for other schools throughout the state. Emphasizing the arts and academics equally, we have an enrollment of 250 students in grades 11 and 12, selected competitively from all areas of Minnesota and from diverse backgrounds. Two-thirds of the students reside on campus.
Early in our first year of operation, we recognized the need to overhaul our rather traditional school-day schedule in order to give teachers more time for curriculum planning and assessment activities. After two years of research and experimentation, we adopted a Copernican model of scheduling in which students have fewer classes per semester for a longer period of time each day (1 hour and 50 minutes). Under this system, teachers have fewer students per day and several more nonteaching hours per week. Students, meanwhile, seem to focus more intensely on three or four subjects than they did on the five or six classes they took in a more traditional school schedule.

Getting Practical About Outcomes

Long before our building filled with students, we began to develop outcomes in the various disciplines. Influenced by the work of William Spady, we determined that course outcomes would serve as the basis for assessing achievements, for granting credit, and for reporting student achievement to postsecondary institutions. Our staff, working with specialists and consultants in the discipline areas, generated course outcomes for each school program.
We created our initial lists of outcomes with more idealism than pragmatism. In many cases they read like wish lists, containing every skill, attitude, and behavior that we, as educators, coveted for our students. The lists were long and specific; some courses had as many as 150 outcomes.
As soon as the school was up and running, however, theory collided with reality. It became obvious that teachers could not effectively track students on more than a few significant outcomes. Also, because course outcomes were to be placed on report forms for every class and every student, we immediately saw the need to condense our lists of detailed outcomes into sets of several broad outcomes of significance for each discipline.
The detailed outcomes also created pedagogical confusion. In the early months, teachers tended to equate outcome-based education with mastery learning, in which complex skills are broken down into smaller, discrete skills and are mastered incrementally. What can easily occur in mastery learning, however, is skill practice without a sense of context. This kind of learning without understanding can make students feel as if they are putting together a jigsaw puzzle with no picture to guide them. When we saw this trend in our classrooms, we realized that we had been confusing outcomes with curriculum. Instead of laying out the big picture—the philosophical framework—our outcomes were providing the specific, concrete learning objectives that constitute curriculum.
As we struggled to condense, refine, and broaden our outcomes, we began to experience a shift in the conventional approach to curriculum. Traditionally, assessment grows out of instruction and provides teachers with evidence of the learning achieved by students—the course outcomes. In an outcome-based system, this paradigm is reversed. Outcomes serve as the starting point, defining in broad terms what the students' competencies should be after they have completed the course. Next, assessment is considered. What skills, behaviors, attitudes, and understandings signal the mastery of an outcome? These criteria help the teacher construct the course content, which in turn leads to daily instructional strategies.
  • provides a picture of the student behavior that would result from learning;
  • describes long-term learning;
  • reflects discipline standards beyond the school setting;
  • acknowledges differing learning styles and forms of intelligence;
  • is understandable to students, parents, and the community;
  • is appropriate developmentally;
  • addresses higher-order thinking skills; and
  • is assessable directly or indirectly.

Figure 1. Sample Outcome and Assessment Criteria from the Literary Arts Program

Outcome #1: Develop a personal voice.

Satisfactory Performance

  • uses writing to explore experiences, ideas, and self

  • begins to recognize and avoid cliché

  • begins to value honestly in language (uses language appropriate to purpose)

  • demonstrates movement toward clarity (writes with audience in mind)

  • reads work aloud to peers

Superior Performance

  • begins to identify true concerns and subjects

  • avoids cliché and begins to discover own language

  • pursues honestly through authentic detail and content

  • begins to achieve clarity (produces writing that communicates with audience)

  • takes artistic risks, recognizing the difference between challenging and shocking a reader, between exploring and attacking a subject

  • begins to create finished pieces with help

  • begins to seek audience through public readings and publication

Challenge Performance

  • demonstrates clear sense of direction in choosing subjects and forms

  • uses honest, vital language, distinct to self

  • writes with artistic integrity and responsibility

  • communicates ideas with clarity, focus, and confidence

  • independently completes projects

  • seeks an audience through public readings and publication


Reporting Student Progress

Even more difficult than writing outcomes was developing assessment criteria that accurately defined student progress. To explain the process we went through to develop those criteria, it is necessary first to describe our reporting system.
At the Arts High School, we print the outcomes for each course on the students' course report forms, which we call Student Learning Plans or SLPs. Twice a semester, students receive one SLP for each course. On the plan the teacher indicates how the student is progressing on each course outcome. Instead of assigning grades, teachers indicate one of the following performance levels for each outcome: Challenge (the highest category), Superior, or Satisfactory. Satisfactory generally translates into C in a graded system, Superior into B and Challenge into A. The school does not provide a D or F grade equivalent. A student's final assessment score for a course is based on the overall trend in outcome achievement. If students do not achieve a Satisfactory in a course, they must retake the course.
Since different performance levels are usually achieved on the various outcomes within a program, an individualized student profile begins to emerge on each reporting form. This profile identifies students' strengths and weaknesses within the discipline.
Initially, parents, students, and faculty expressed concern about how an ungraded system might affect students applying for college entrance and scholarships. To accommodate this concern, we developed a process for translating our reporting results into grades. The school profile sent to colleges and universities explains this process, and we make students and parents fully aware of the grade-translation process.

Writing Assessment Criteria

Writing the assessment criteria for each course outcome was the most arduous task we faced because we had to scrutinize the actual progress of our students. Our assumption that standards for student excellence vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and our belief that good teachers are continually assessing student growth in ways both formal and informal impelled our work. We wanted to establish criteria that allowed for assessment that went far beyond tests and papers.
Before we could begin to write assessment criteria, however, we needed a working definition of the learning attributes of students at each of the three performance levels—Challenge, Superior, and Satisfactory. We began to describe these attributes in a series of small group meetings within disciplines. For instance, teachers in the music department brainstormed a list of attributes that described a student working at the Challenge level. (It helped immensely to envision specific students and to describe their attitudes, behaviors, competencies, and habits.) Next, the music teachers generated attributes describing a student working at the Satisfactory level. Finally, they developed a list of attributes for the Superior level. Interestingly, we found the Superior level to be the most difficult to define because students demonstrated such a variety of attributes between the Challenge and Satisfactory levels.
During these many department meetings, broad areas of agreement across disciplines emerged among the teachers. Whether in visual arts, math, or world languages, students tended to exhibit similar characteristics at each of the three performance levels.
For instance, attributes consistently identified in Challenge-level learners were the abilities to use the symbol system of the discipline, to integrate knowledge from a variety of disciplines, to carry out complex procedures, and to recognize one's own strengths and weaknesses. At the Satisfactory level, students completed the work required and demonstrated attributes such as the ability to isolate and practice the skills of the discipline, an understanding of the vocabulary of the discipline, and a beginning capacity to ask questions within the discipline. Students in the Superior range possessed skills and proficiency levels that tended to be varied and inconsistent. As they progressed toward higher achievement, they began to demonstrate higher proficiency on a more consistent basis.
In defining the characteristics common to the different performance levels, we came to general agreement on the meaning of the evaluative terms we had chosen. Our process has allowed us to move toward clearly defined standards of achievement, providing benefits for our students, their parents, and our teachers.
We have not reached the place we aimed for when we started out four years ago. Yet, we can look back and say, yes, we have made progress in refining the structure of the school day, in developing curriculum and assessment, and in reporting on student progress. Our teachers have a firmer grasp on the scope and direction of their courses. Our progress has been due more than anything else to our willingness to experiment, to fail, and to start over again; to learn from the experts, but also tell them when we thought they were wrong; and most of all to listen—always listen—to our students and teachers.
Although we still have much work to do on outcome education and performance assessment, when we look around the Arts High School today, we see students who are learning in an atmosphere charged with meaning. Their courses consist of tasks and experiences that their teachers have made pertinent and authentic. They tend to compete not against one another but against themselves. They are active in their own assessment and in diagnosing their own learning needs. And, most important, they are taking responsibility for their own education and learning to value it.

Sharon Jasa has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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