A Vision for Art Education Part Two: Student Learning Outcomes


Vision for SLOs


I recently took part in a discussion about the merits of teacher evaluations based on student growth. This national trend to find a method for quantifying art education comes labeled in several different acronyms but is most commonly referred to as SLOs (Student Learning Outcomes).

The stated purpose of implementing SLOs tends to vary depending on who you ask. Responses often include that SLOs empower art teachers as professionals, give administrators measurable data in which to rate teachers, and help us keep our jobs. There is a common denominator in all of these examples, but ironically, the purpose of student learning objectives seems to have little to do with the students.

The Issue with Showing Growth

Growth, no matter what the subject, is admirable. My son recently took part in a bi-annual physical fitness challenge in his PE class. He had to demonstrate how many sit-ups he could do in a minute. The data from the end of the year was then compared to the beginning of the year in order to demonstrate growth.

Ironically, my son did more sit-ups in his first attempt despite participating in a semester of gym class. Does this lack of quantitative data show a lack of growth? I don’t believe so. Throughout the year, my son learned sportsmanship, cooperation, and, perhaps most importantly, that there is an entire world of activity beyond the virtual. Can these attributes be measured in sit-ups or any other means for that matter? And if they can’t, do they still hold value?

Must Everything be Measurable?

student growth
Reiterating what has already been written, growth in art is commendable. Students are often thrilled to see a comparison of previous and recent works once they learn a new skill. As art teachers, we strive to help our students improve as well. That’s the reason we teach techniques. However, teaching skills and techniques is only one fraction of why our art classes exist. Our classes allow for exploration and learning through discovery and play. Our students find new ways to plan and to practice. They dive into processes which may or may not produce a product at all. All of these are important but not all are measurable.

15 Minutes of Fame

Some have argued that even though we might not like it, SLOs are here and there is nothing we can do about it. I agree with the first half, the SLOs are here. However, many a poor education initiative has begun and then fallen once the shortcomings have been exposed. The SLO may get its 15 minutes of fame, but it should not be part of our vision for the future of art education.

It is possible to argue the responses given for the purpose of the SLO.  If it empowers art teachers as professionals then have we not been professionals up to this point? If it gives administrators measurable data in which to rate teachers and help us keep our jobs then it also gives them reasons to cut our positions. 

Beyond the argument, we may be missing the most important point. If we reduce our lessons to the measurable, we chance diminishing every other aspect of our programs. When we become overly focused on the measurable we will lose discovery, play, exploration, risk-taking, problem-solving, practice, and process.

I realize this may sound radical but what if the future of art education wasn’t about growth or measurable data? What if the future of art education was about allowing kids time to make art?

How do you feel about SLOs in the art room?

Do you think your district would ever allow you not to give grades in art?


Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Hope Knight

    SLO’s measure in a one directional line, when art learning and creative growth happen in an organic, multi-directional way, making traditional measurement tools ineffective. If “proof of growth” HAS to be a thing, just look at the child’s portfolio – it’s all right there!
    Here’s hoping that one day experimentation, exploration, and finding personal voice will be respected by the decision makers as data collection is now. Thanks for this article – it is an issue that all art teachers can agree on.

    • Lori Ziemann Riehl

      This week I attended three days of training concerning standards-based grading. I teach at the high-school level. An under-lying question for me during training was, “Students refrain from experimentation because they want to score high on their projects. How can we allow for experimentation/mistakes in this system?” I wasn’t given an answer. I do allow students to start over with reflection, review and consultation. Time in their schedules does not always allow for a re-do; especially with larger projects.

      Is experimentation measurable? If we figure out how to make that measurable, then can it perhaps can fit into the SLO format? :)

      A final project last year was a Project-Based Learning lesson with the driving question being, “Who am I as an artist and what stories do I want to tell?”. We were on a quest to find our voices as artists. If you would like to discuss that, let me know.

      Thanks for your post, Hope Knight!

  • liz schott

    I am an elementary art teacher in CT. This year we focused on an SLO based on the Elements and Principles of Art. Students in grade 5 would receive Mastery if they achieved 80%. As a department we developed a multiple answer test (lowest form of higher thinking) and gave a pre-test in February and post-test in May. While my students did improve and overall showed mastery on the test I was confident where they showed the most improvement for the year was not answering vocabulary questions, but rather developing their technical skills, learning how to work in cooperative groups, discussing and critiquing artworks and generally learning how to think outside the box. To be honest, I didn’t even know what the Elements and Principles of Art were until I went to college and I developed into a working thinking artist of some merit. I think having SLO’s can give a teacher a false sense of empowerment or failure when really in the end the learning is deeper and more long term than just the year that we rate

    • Toby

      But also, isn’t the SLO’s there “to help the teacher” actually teach the concepts, higher level thinking skills that we already teach? Yes, if you have children that just can’t get it? You do feel a sense of failure. However maybe for some teachers they’d take another approach and maybe the child will conceive some of the concept because the teacher does have to measure them? Does not want the child to fail? Just a thought!

  • Toby

    The kids in my class “know they are growing” from everything we do. From a new project/skill/concept/SLO, but administrators rarely “really know” what we do unless they were once an art instructor. Grading art helps to validate our importance, SLO’s also helps to validate, anything we can do to be included in the importance of a child’s education will in turn be important to save us! In my district the Media Specialists do not give grades….therefore their area is dwindling and very rocky at present. My personal option is “if they graded, measured, and etc. students progress”, they’d be ok now. They are just a place to put kids for awhile….so other teachers can have a break. How sad!

  • Chris Belton

    Another iteration of “I have to make you fill out paperwork to prove to someone else that I am making you do your job (a job I don’t really understand and don’t know how to evaluate because I am not a certified art teacher).”

  • Candi

    Would love to see the focus of measuring student growth move away from skills, techniques, vocabulary, and quality of finished products. What if we focused on the process of making art and the ability to think and act like an artist? Are your students able to find their own ideas or choose media in a purposeful way? What happens when your students make mistakes? Do they give up or persevere? Are they actively reflecting on their work and using that information to improve their work? If we focused on the process, what would our lesson plans look like? How do you teach a child to understand the qualities of different media and discern among them to achieve a certain purpose? What kinds of interventions would we develop to help the student who never has an idea or is constantly throwing their work away and starting over? I truly believe these are the things worth focusing on because these are the skills that translate to the real world for our students.

    • Kathy Bastian Fisk

      Thank you for all of these great questions, Candi. They are right on the mark.

  • Patti Wright

    The ONLY standardized test I can think of that can be closely and
    accurately measured with definable, measurable results is a straight
    math test where computational (numerical)problems are presented, skills
    necessary to solving those problems are necessary, and no reading is
    involved. Otherwise…it’s something else posing as a math test.

  • Patti Wright

    By the time came for your son to finally get to his EOY Curriculum Assessment in his “other subjects”, like PE, Art, and Music, he was probably worn to a frazzle. Unsurprisingly, his motivation to do well on “one more test” at the end of the school year was less than it was last Fall after a summer of rest and fun.

  • Kim Horan Colasante

    I teach in a middle school in the city of Philadelphia. Our SLO was also based on the elements and principles of art. However my students were not assessed on their ability of making the art but instead writing about it. My 6th grade students were required by my district to write a 5 paragraph essay describing the elements and principles they saw in a particular artwork. While 98% of my students improved in the the art knowledge many did not improve in the overall score because they simply did not write their essay correctly based on the rubric used for PSSA’s. I feel this assessment was too much considering even in college I did not analyze art in this depth. The students were overwhelmed and bothered because they wanted to do art not write about it.

  • Carissa Zill

    Right on! I “threw out grades” this year in my middle school classes. Points were replaced by detailed feedback and conversation. Students are part of the ongoing discussion and have a responsibility to drive the conversation. Suddenly, more than ever in my room, students felt free to take creative risks and accomplished more work than ever before. My administration supported this move and I did not get any less validation due to the absence of grades – if anything I gained more validation. Grading policies are often obscure and meaningless because learning is organic and messy and a number just can’t capture that! Then factor in elements like partial credit, late credit, zeros vs 60%, weighted assignments/categories, rewarding following directions, but penalizing creative risk and outside the box thinking… the list goes on. I’d highly recommend the book Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes if you want to explore the topic more! Also check out the “Teacher Throwing Out Grades” Facebook group or follow #TTOG on Twitter.

  • Dr. D

    In New Jersey we can use student portfolios to document student growth. I wrote my SGO’s to evaluate the projects (rating what concepts, ideas, connected to state curriculum standards) the students had successfully completed. For example,” Grade 4 students with 90% attendance will demonstrate their knowledge of concepts by completing 80% of projects successfully.” If the learner outcomes are based on core curriculum standards and assessments are based on learner outcomes it all makes sense.

    • disqus_rFj3dMmCBx

      How do you account for the learning and growing that results from failure to complete a project successfully? Those risk takers who end up botching their results in the final stage are going to look like they didn’t learn and grow.

  • Mr. Post

    If you’re a farmer and you want to grow a good crop of corn, you don’t go out and measure it every day. You prepare the soil, make sure it has enough water and hopefully it gets enough sunshine to grow.

    SLO’s are like the insects that get in the way of producing a healthy crop. You can add to that list of pests – administrators, state requirements and all sorts of educational initiatives aimed at trying to measure and quantify the immeasurable. This invasion of pests is all brought to you by people who don’t understand what the hell art making is about.

    I attended a weeklong workshop for potters and art teachers that my friend mel holds at his farm. I just got out of my car, didn’t unpack it yet and mel greeted my by saying “John, you wanna help build a kiln?” After a few hugs from other potters I was stacking brick and figuring out problems. The next day we had a perfect firing in that kiln. —and at no point did we feel the need to direct our learning by writing about or talking about ‘learning outcomes.’ I learned so much this week and it all happened by WATCHING and DOING. Every potter who attended camp shared information on subjects from glazing, to firing gas kilns to making and selling art. And no nanny-state mandates about how to learn or quantify the learning. Imagine that, learning without all of the bullshit that art teachers are required to do to make the learning process measurable – as if that’s even one of the goals of teaching and making art. No wonder I love it at mel’s farm – everyone “gets it” and knows why we are there.

  • disqus_rFj3dMmCBx

    The SLO process I’ve had to complete for the last three years has been just bizarre. When I try to describe it, I feel embarrassed by what it seems to indicate about the teaching profession. Basically I choose a “creative expression” task for a performance assessment that I expect my students will not complete successfully. I pre-test them and score the results with a rubric the test takers haven’t seen. If the pre-test results are sufficiently poor, then I have found an “area of need” so I can proceed to teach students how to complete the task in the way required by the rubric, then test them again. I don’t need them to succeed, but only to meet a growth target based on their initial score. Also, I have to file the tests and the students never get to compare their own pre/post test. My test takers are 3rd grade, but I believe changes are going to require me to test kindergarteners next year, my largest group of students.

    • Pam Coombs Turcotte

      Testing Kindergarteners? 5 year olds are just beginning to explore art, materials, and the making of art. There is such a developmental range and many have not had much exposure to art by that age. Again, art teachers are made to fit into “round holes” so that administrators feel better about evaluating something they don’t truly understand. I have always had to “grade” my elementary students, but never kindergarteners. In elementary school, we usually see them once a week for an hour at most. I have taught for 35 years, but lately I’ve been feeling that grading young (elementary age) children runs counter to art production. I agree with the pp- behavior and effort should be assessed, but NOT art production. I am uncomfortable telling young kids that they get a “2”, or a “3”, or a “4” based on my subjective opinion about work that is grossly experiential and developmental.

      • disqus_rFj3dMmCBx

        I agree it will be absurd if I have to test kindergarten. It’s just a new wrinkle in the system that requires the SLO to measure our largest group of students, and that’s likely to be kinder next year. Hopefully I can convince my admin to permit me to test a different group. Kindergarteners’ skills and comprehension will grow a lot during the year (no matter what kind of teaching I do, most likely) so it won’t tell me much to test them. Unless we don’t meet the target. . . .then I can really wonder what I am doing wrong.

  • derek53576

    Some of these photos are realy amazing. It is really a great piece of work as they collect all those important and good qualities in a single place.