A Memphis arts assessment pilot program tracks K–12 teacher performance.

Taurus Hines teaches creative dance at Colonial Middle School in Memphis.How do you measure a teacher’s job performance? The Memphis school district has taken on that sticky and sometimes contentious question, piloting a solution last year that remarkably satisfies both arts teachers and state requirements.

It started three years ago when Tennessee was awarded Race to the Top funding, which provides federal money to a state in return for improved education initiatives. But with that also came a host of prerequisites, including revamped teacher evaluation protocols that tied teacher assessment to student performance. Tennessee teachers suddenly found that 35 percent of their evaluations were based on students’ progress on standardized tests. It’s a framework that may work for subjects like math or science, but arts teachers were chagrined to learn they would be judged on test scores from all students in their school, even those who never set foot in their classrooms.

There had to be a better solution. Patrick Dru Davison, an arts administrator with the Memphis City Schools district, led a state committee of administrators and teachers to find alternative standardized assessment systems that they could implement. The result was not encouraging, but the search opened a fruitful discussion: What does meaningful assessment look like?

The committee devised its own system that they proposed testing in Memphis schools for the 2011–12 school year. Four-hundred thirty arts teachers would submit a portfolio of students’ work, grade themselves on student progress and learn if their self-evaluation concurred with that of a blind panel.

“The pilot program lets us demonstrate our students’ growth and competency through alternative ways,” says Taurus Hines, a Colonial Middle School dance teacher who works on the committee with Davison. Throughout the year, teachers gather material for their portfolios, including photographs, written work and online videos that demonstrate student growth. “We videotape students in rehearsal, and they may not do so well in rehearsal,” says Hines. “But by the time they perform, you can see they’ve grasped certain areas and we tape that. And we have students write a reflection on their work.”

Taurus Hines teaching at Colonial Middle School in Memphis, TNAll material is uploaded to a special website developed for the program that Davison says is as easy to use as Facebook. From there, teachers assign themselves a grade on how well they are doing, and independently, an anonymous Tennessee educator (one in the same field) reviews the material and offers a score. “If you really want to know what growth looks like in a dance classroom, you need to find a good dance teacher to evaluate them,” says Davison. (The Tennessee Department of Education organizes the pool of trained and approved reviewers, and the website randomly pairs each assessor with an arts teacher.)

Although the evaluations occur in the spring, teachers are encouraged to upload material throughout the year. This seems like extra work for already overstretched educators. But as Kirby High School dance teacher Noelia Warnette-Jones points out, the material she uses as evidence for student progress (called artifacts), like written peer critiques, is already a part of her curriculum.

“The portfolio system is still a work in process,” says Hines. While there was room in the budget to provide every dance teacher a webcam, the committee is working to find the best submission system to encourage inclusion and creativity. For instance, should a video be a .mov or .mp4 file? Or, how should student critiques be formatted? Teachers are also determining which materials to use as evidence. “We’re working on building artifacts that give the reader, who’s looking at the evaluations, the best way to measure growth,” says Warnette-Jones.

Still, the committee’s proposal was a success. The state board in Tennessee approved the assessment system, and two more districts have implemented it for the 2012–13 year. Many more districts have asked to be part of it next year.

Warnette-Jones sees the system as beneficial to students as well. Not only does she use the videos of her students’ progress as evidence for her portfolio, she also uses it as a teaching tool to help students learn to self-critique. But most of all, the system has helped her stay on track throughout the year. “I’m more aware of making sure I’m hitting all the benchmarks in our standards,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to see if what you’re doing works. It’s a fantastic model we are brewing in Memphis.” DT

Former dancer, now teacher, Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Christian Ross, courtesy of Memphis City Schools

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