Dealing with Failure: When Achievement Data Comes up Short

In an ideal world full of unicorns and perfect students, post-test data would always meet your goals. But we all know that the world is not ideal,  there are no unicorns, and sometimes kids still don’t fully meet your lesson objectives by the time the post-test rolls around. What to do?

Well, you could make a few notes for next year and move on to the next lesson. However, is that the message that we want to send our students? Is that the kind of work that we feel comfortable with ourselves? I’m guessing the answers are probably no and no.


When faced with this exact dilemma, I wanted my failing fifth grade to know that a poor performance on a test is not forgotten the next day and that we are a team working together towards their success. They may have made incredible sculptures, but they still couldn’t articulate anything meaningful about them. Not okay with me! So we made a plan that can be followed by any teacher that finds themselves in this sticky situation…

6 Ways to Improve Data in the Art Room

  1. Analyze the data. Where are we doing well? Where do we need more work?
  2. Revisit our goals. How far away are we from reaching those goals?
  3. Celebrate students that made the grade. Recognize them in front of the class. It can also be very powerful to recognize students that are very close to reaching those goals, letting them know that victory is within reach!
  4. Understand the two-way street. Tell students that you are going to work to help them meet the goals, and that they need to meet you half way and work hard too.
  5. Dangle the carrot. What are the rewards of success? First, knowledge is power. From there it can be as simple as moving on to a highly engaging lesson once the goals are reached. In my classroom, fifth graders could move on to a wampum bead weaving lesson once the class met their goals. They couldn’t wait to do something so fun!
  6. Think about your own practices. What can you do as an educator to ensure success? I needed to teach a few test-taking skills and I allowed students to both write and illustrate their answers. I planned a few mini-lessons that hit some different learning styles that I may have neglected the first time around.

In the end, you may delay your next lesson by a few weeks. A small price to pay for high expectations and sending a message that success is a team effort.

What do you do when your students aren’t “getting it”?

What happens when students fail a test or project in your class?

Sarah Dougherty

My name is Sarah Dougherty, and I teach elementary art in a large urban district in central Iowa. I love working with our diverse population of K-5 students to bring art to their homes, communities, and everyday lives.


  • Erica artprojectgirl

    Really interesting! We have been talking a lot about failure as well in my class
    but for in a different way I think! Each day I give them a little inspiration to fail because I feel like kids don’t push themselves or sometimes even try because they are afraid of failure! So ill ask them something like “how many drawings does an artist make before they get something they like?” Most will say at least 4 and then ill ask them why they expect to succeed on the first try. I bring in lots of quotes about failure as well. As long as they can talk about why something failed and experience failure I think they are thinking critically. Testing in art is very counterintuitive. There simply isn’t enough time to really engage in the process! Then add a few tests and we are really stressing kids out! It’s important to keep everything in a healthy perspective for them so they are willing to fail and try new ideas. What is your thoughts? Your situation seems very different! Maybe you are teaching older kids in longer classes?

    • Erica, I know what you mean about kids fearing failure! My experience was with 5th graders meeting for 40 minutes twice a week. Testing can feel counterintuitive in the art room until you find a method that works for you. Although my students made some good sculptures, many of them were still unable to reflect using art vocabulary that I felt was vital to their art room learning. That told me we needed to revisit some content, then assess to be sure we were really cementing this stuff into their brains. I never once felt my students were stressed. I do see that students take their learning and work in the art room more seriously knowing that the expectation is to show what they have learned. The fun and freedom still remain!

  • Art on my hands

    I don’t do any written testing in my classes. I live in unicorn land, I guess, because I hope I am never required to give a written test. I feel successful when the kids remind me of something we’ve discussed in the past and they are able to connect that information to something we are currently doing in class. Am I missing the point somewhere? Should I be looking at this differently?

    • I think it’s apparent that students are learning a lot in the art room. A test can’t always show that, which I firmly believe. However, sometimes it’s necessary to quantify what we are doing in the art room in order to show our community and administration what students are really learning. The sweet spot is when this data is so authentic, that it actually helps us as educators to know our students, where we need to improve as educators and make goals going forward for the classroom. When I first started giving assessments in the art room, the students didn’t take me very seriously. The data sucked. It was embarrassing because I KNEW they were learning many things in the art room. It takes practice and persistence to get meaningful data that can actually drive your instruction and push students to be accountable for their learning. I think this is the ultimate message here with Sarah’s article. I also think her data driven art room is a great model to look to. Your sample is also considered an assessment, but more of a formative one!

      • cfrobeyinc

        When I started giving art assessments (both pre and post) last year my students didn’t take me very seriously either. They assumed the art projects were enough of an assessment. My written assessments are not very long and quick for students to do which makes it much more tolerable for them to accomplish without too much whining. I like to have the variety of assessments (projects, written, oral, etc.) In my art room I want my students not only creating art but also becoming little artists in all aspects (looking, seeing, verbalizing, thinking as artists, etc.) The actual data from written assessments is a great aid in helping me to know they are “getting it” plus Districts and even in interviews they want to see that hard evidence as well.

        I do have a question……would it be helpful to include a “failure” in our teaching portfolios? My reasoning for including something such as this would be to show how I dealt with the failure (the improvements made, adjustments and end results). I wondered if it would be good to show how we reflect upon and deal with those failures. On the other hand, perhaps we only want to showcase our grand successes in the portfolios.


        • I like the idea of showing growth. For example, you could show how you started out very low, but as the students improved, the data did, too. I have no problem with showing a failure, I think it’s a healthy thing. The part you don’t want to forget to show is how you adapted and improved based upon that lower data. This is what administration is looking for. Great thinking, Cathy!

        • Cathy, I think it depends on your own comfort level with that sort of thing, but I feel that bringing a failed lesson or strategy and then evidence of ways you changed your thinking or instruction can show that you are a reflective teacher to a potential administrator. Go for it!