Building a Set of National Theatre Education Assessment Models
Anyone who sets up theatre-based education activities asks themselves, “What knowledge is worth learning?” Important theatre knowledge should be defined by and aligned with the theatre’s mission. In consultation with the artistic director, education directors and teaching artists should construct curriculum content that places these important ideas in the center of educational activities, and now, at the center of newly developing assessment strategies. In fact, the entire theatre’s activities, from teaching classes to performing plays and reaching out to the community should have assessment strategies that are aligned with the mission so that we value what we assess and we assess what we value.
In theatre education classes or residencies, an assessment strategy that probes student knowledge of important theatre curriculum content might be as simple as giving a multiple-choice test or a survey of student opinion. The recent shift, or reform, in K-12 schools goes beyond assessment strategies of straight recall of content to more rigorous assessment strategies and so is beginning to influence theatre educational planning. These assessment strategies emphasize academic responses using critical thinking skills such as description, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay, 1956).
Theatre education directors will recognize the term used for these new assessments: “performance assessments.” In fact all theatres use a type of performance assessment called audience attendance. In this era of K-12 school reform, the term performance assessments are forms of testing designed to get students to demonstrate their learning through extended tasks, projects, or experiments. The particular assessment focus of this website is performance assessments, called: Observations, Performance Tasks, Portfolios and Surveys.
How do performance assessments work in theatre? Important theatre knowledge in a class on King Lear might serve us as an example. We might agree generally that the facts of a play, the interactions of the characters, and the content and societal themes the characters talk about are three good areas of knowledge to assess in a theatre class about King Lear.
Assessment Vignette: Traditional Assessment of King Lear
James is a student in a theatre class sponsored by a professional theatre in America. His teacher, Denise, has ten weeks to cover Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Without a clear assessment plan, she decides to give a multiple-choice test on the play at the end of the ten weeks. Most students get more than three-fourths of the multiple-choice questions that focus on the facts of the play correct. She concludes that students really got something out of their time in her class. She tells the head of the theatre that Shakespeare is alive and well.
Assessment Vignette: Performance Assessment of King Lear
James takes the same course the next year, but this time he is taught King Lear by Elizabeth. James is told that the assessment plan of King Lear employs informal check-ins, observations, academic prompts, mini-quizzes and something called a performance task at the end of the course. James freaks out because there is an assessment in every one of the ten classes! But with each succeeding class, James’ fear of assessment eases, as they are embedded in clear exercises with rubrics for judging the quality of student work. He sometimes forgets he is being assessed, as the exercises are tightly crafted, and the rubric tells him exactly what is needed to achieve standards. The process of assessment also helps him to better understand the deeper parts of the play, such as sibling rivalry, the conflict of man versus nature, and the characteristics of why Lear is a tragedy. These are assessed through academic prompts, mini-quizzes, or even performance tasks such as acting out scenes. She then gives them a survey to solicit their preferences for the final project.
In a clever twist, the consistent, smaller assessments prepared him for the final performance assessment. The final performance task asked students to demonstrate their understandings of the play by writing their own ending. “Wow,” says James, “It was really hard but that paid off and the final was a blast! To see how each of us would do our King Lear, how we would each craft our own ending, that was great. I loved constructing my own ending and the rubric we were graded on helped us to actually know the standards we were expected to attain, so the final was a breeze. All she wanted to know was how my ending tied into the play…” The rewriting of the ending of the play serves as a penultimate performance assessment task by imitating the restoration period that follows the original writing of the play. In the 17th century, Nahum Tare rewrote King Lear (1681), and for almost two hundred years (1843), the play had a happy ending!