Should We Stop Assessing Artwork?

I recently encountered this quote online. The words are by one of my favorite art ed gurus, Olivia Gude. She’s the mind behind Spiral Workshop and was a member of the Next Generation Standards writing team. I deeply agree with this statement, even though it’s controversial. Here’s why.
When we assess artwork, we typically only assess a few things:

  • How the student followed directions
  • How the student applied media or process

Neither one of these is hugely important. Following directions is good and, often, a necessary thing. The problem with using it as a measure for developing a grade is that it’s not reflective of learning.

Following directions is about behavior, not what students know or can demonstrate. The place for evaluating it is a participation grade. If you’re basing grades on things like students having the correct number of values in a drawing or both warm and cool colors in a painting, you are not assessing knowledge – you are assessing how well directions were followed, which is a poor measure of learning.

As for applying media and process, sure, art teachers need to think about how students have progressed with art-making skills. Unfortunately, with the pressure to produce work that’s visually appealing, we place too much value in this area at the cost of other skills like creative thinking. We need to focus our teaching and evaluation around what students think in addition to what they make.

We should stop assessing student artwork because it is such a limited measure of learning.

If we truly want our students to develop as artists, we need to look at what an artist does holistically, which is what the National Standards ask us to do.

So, how should we assess student learning?

The National Standards are made up of eleven Anchor Standards which are divided into four main areas of learning: Creating, Presenting, Responding, and Connecting. We need to assess student learning in each of these areas. Finished artwork is a measure of learning, but it’s not the only one. We also need to look at process: how children develop ideas, solve problems, organize concepts, and make decisions. We need to assess how students process artwork: the way they analyze, evaluate and interpret works of art and culture.

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So, should we stop assessing artwork? Yes, if it’s all we evaluate. Finished student work is only one measure of learning, so “artwork” has to mean more than the finished product. It has to mean the thought behind it, the reason it was made, cultural context, and how we respond to it. That’s what we need to teach and assess.

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What things do you think are important to assess? Let us know in the comments below.


Melissa Purtee


Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.


  • kk

    Where is the rest of the article? I was expecting a rubric or checklist as an example of assessing student learning.

    • LH

      I agree. I agree with the article but now help me figure out HOW to assess that way!

      • Robin B

        The most valuable assessments in my classroom are student self-assessment of their own learning and growth. It shifts the locus of control from teacher to learner. The students are usually honest about where they are with their process.
        This can be done through writing a short reflection upon completion of a project.

    • MizTee

      Have you tried the “Studio Habits of Mind” as a reflection? The sentence starters are great, and make the students think. It’s a good structure for a reflection or self-assessment strategy.

      • LWKieling

        I created this that I use with students and it is really helpful in getting them thinking about their thinking and their process. They write a daily goal and track the Studio Habits that they worked on that class period. We have block classes, so after 8 they write a reflection.

    • LWKieling

      Maybe the posting below might help…….

  • Although, the newly written National Standards do provide ways to better assess student learning, most of us, mandated by our districts are required to enter grades. For this type of assessment, a report grade or grading system would need to look different than what we traditionally see. But the question is “What does it look like?” You also make mention of skills like creative thinking going wayside with the assessment of only artwork, but how do we concretely measure creativity in a realistic, manageable way in the classroom?

  • Cathy Robey

    I love your articles Melissa!

    Anyway, I am fortunate enough to work in a school district that does not give the traditional letter grades anymore. We assess on “exceeds”, “meets”, etc., etc… is a Standards Based grading system. I know that many teachers will argue that if we don’t give “ABCDF” grades that students will not work. I find the contrary to be true, at least in my room. If students are engaged, know the expectations in class and there is mutual respect (student/teacher) then the students will work well and do their best. I do use a rubric for my art projects which helps my students to know what is expected of them.

    An example of a recent project regarding the Color Wheel is listed below with the rubric. The students had to use all 12 colors (mixing primary colors) of the color wheel. I didn’t want to use the traditional “circle” so I let them use their creativity by creating “Color Wheel Eyes”. They could do human eyes, reptile eyes or even designed their own eye but incorporating the color wheel of 12 colors within their chosen eye.

    The rubric was this:
    – The eye has to fill the page (composition)
    – Use of 12 colors of the color wheel (mixing primary colors)
    – Effort and neatness in painting
    – Written reflection

    I know where my students are at with their ability and if they have given effort. The creativity and design was in the “eye” part and the objective parts of the rubric is the 12 colors of the wheel used and the composition of the artwork.

    This was a middle school art project. The students loved it and thought the designs were neat (seeing their peers’ artwork). All students succeeded with this project.

  • Mr. Post

    I assessed yesterday’s dinner as an 85%. The football game I watched on Saturday gets a 100%. Saturday’s kiln load full of failed glaze experiments gets a grade of 20% in terms of results, but a 100% in terms of learning something that doesn’t work and pointing in a direction for further explorations.

    Schools are artificial places full of arbitrary rules that have little to do with whether or not kids are successful in life. We teach kids to chase grades as if they are actually meaningful.

    Some of the people who weren’t good grade chasers in school actually turn out to be quite successful human beings.

    I am pleased that I don’t have to grade my elementary art students on anything. It’s the best way to learn. The stuff that the kids are interested in sticks in their brain. The stuff that doesn’t resonate with them fades away. That’s why it’s important to connect the learning to who they are as people right now, and not who I think they will become in the future. My first job is to make really exciting and fun lessons that captivate their imaginations. The spider web of connections in the brain hangs on those central threads of imagination and interest. Grade chasing isn’t even part of the equation of learning for me.

    • In a perfect world I would teach a class full of intrinsically motivated children without any formal grading whatsoever. However, I would still set learning goals and provide students with feedback about how they are progressing. If learning goals are important and represent big idea type thinking, assessing them can be productive. Plus, I have to grade.

      • Mr. Post

        Melissa – the great thing about being an older teacher like me is that you come to realize there are so many rules you can break without consequence.

        During fire drills my friend Mel (who taught high school ceramics for 30 years) used to run out of his classroom waving his hands over his head yelling “Fire, Fire, Fire”. His kids loved fire drills during ceramics class.

        Mel took teaching very seriously but approached it playfully. I fear that in today’s world there is not enough “playfulness” as part of the daily routine of schools and learning. It’s all about the data, and the assessments and the numbers.

        Think about how baby animals learn to survive in their world – they learn through play. Humans learn through play too, but schools have almost completely snuffed it out, as if it’s a bad word and a bad idea.

        Mel didn’t grade individual projects in his ceramics classes, he had each kid put on a show/display of their art before the end of the semester. Think of how many common core standards are involved in the process of putting on a show. As far as motivation goes, Mel told the kids that they could only make 500 pieces per semester.

        Your articles are always thought provoking as they deal with big ideas. Just look at how many comments you get!

        Since I was a kid, I have always had trouble following directions – and so what I normally do in my art room is make my own path first and then only if asked do I worry how it fits into what’s the latest buzz in education. People have been making quality art for millennia without all of the pedagogy that colleges, state legislatures and school administrators would have us believe are vital to the process. One of my favorite quotes on learning about art comes from the baseball player and manager Yogi Berra “You can observe a lot by watching”

        • Cathy Robey

          Yes….being an older teacher does have its advantages! I have had many colleagues comment that I am so laid back yet my classroom is managed very well and the students are always engaged in the learning going on in my art room. As I get older I guess I am getting wiser as well! (Or I like to think so anyway!)

          I think many younger teachers/new teachers have so much to worry about and load their plate with……so much “data driven stuff” that they have to keep track of, higher order thinking stuff, etc. etc. I teach K-8 art and my focus more is on the basic foundations (painting, drawing, clay, etc) over and over again….like practice….so they can build those skills that will lay the base for the higher order thinking and choice based art.

          As an older teacher and I were discussing the other day….we just want to be left alone to teach!!

  • Kristie Schult

    I have started this, this school year. I LOVE the feeling in the art room this year. I already see more creativity sprouting from the freedom or burden of grades on artwork. I am using a formative assessment sheet students keep out while working that I write what I see in terms of art skills being used. I also write suggestions to move forward, and students write questions they may have for me. We are doing snapshots during process, written mini reflections during process, final snapshots of finished art, artist statements at end of projects, and wil end the quarters with one on ones student and teacher to decide their grade. I am using some growth expectations we will discuss and they will rate their growth on those as good, average, needs work. Then we will decide with each other what their quarter grade is. I have gone through my principal and school board and they are willing to let me experiment with it this year. It feels very supportive of the artistic behaviors we are encouraging and the way we work as artists.

    • Yes!!!! I loving hearing about supportive school communities!

    • D.Mac

      I would love to see some examples of this, especially your formative assessment tool.

  • Amber Burns

    I have also started a new way to assess in my art room this year! Instead of giving grades for projects, I grade on standards and criteria. For example Planning is one of the standards I use. For each project students get a score for how well they planned out the project ( I have a choice based art room). Then at the end of the quarter they have a planning grade. I have been very transparent with the students letting them know this new approach and why I am using it and the students are responding well. There are a couple other teachers, non art teachers, also using this method of grading and they have said it is easier to explain to parents how a student can improve because instead of saying they need to improve on their homework the teacher can tell the parent exactly where the student needs help.

    • This sounds like a really effective way of grading! Thank you for sharing!

  • Candi

    Great article, Melissa! Can easily see how you could take these distilled standards and create a rubric for student learning. Thanks for asking the tough questions!

  • I really appreciate all of the thoughtful comments about assessment! I will write an article with some resources for how to assess more holistically ASAP – thanks for the idea.

  • Denise

    Yes, I would love to see more on the ‘what does this look like piece’. I’m sold on the idea of assessing more authentically–my grading system needs a re-vamp, and this article resonates with me. I really like what John Post had to say as well…yes, building more ‘play’ into art is ideal. Let’s keep this discussion going!

  • Expressive Monkey

    Thanks for the thought provoking article, Melissa! I’ve been developing an assessment tools over the past several years and I’ve just recently made it available. I think that it allows teachers the option of assessing a wide variety of skills used in the art process. I consider my tool a “work in progress” and I appreciate the ideas raised in your post and look forward to finding even more ways to make this tool relevant to teachers’ needs.

    I’ve written several blog posts this week. I would love to have your feedback!

  • 2Dv8

    I have an art club and I also teach an art camp after school. NO grading…much better results because the kids are free to create and not worry about meeting the points needed to pass art! They have to meet personal goals and deadlines but no grade!

  • Debby McGann

    To: Mr. Post…you are the kind of teacher everyone hopes for!! I have been flying under the radar for the past 23 years encouraging kids to use their own intellect to create works of art (I say flying under the radar because I check all the boxes on the standards checklist, write all of the umpteen million lesson plans, objectives, etc…on my whiteboard and syllabus…but I ultimately help kids develop their own projects and plans based on what interests them. Giving them the freedom to do so, frees one up to be a more authentic art teacher/fellow artist…When asked about giving mostly “A’s”, I have a “canned” response that I have developed to explain my reasoning. Most of the time no one asks because all the students are happy and so are their parents! I am still floored by the students who say, “just tell me what to do!” My response to that is always, “If I were you, I wouldn’t want anyone to tell me what to do!” (they usually only say that the first few days :-)…we are the last frontier that allows children to experiment, make mistakes, and come up with their own solutions, without a penalty…that would be an “A” in my book, I mean grade-book :-)

    • Lisa Blum

      I feel so much better after reading Mr Post and you Debby. I have been flying under the radar for years. I teach k-12 art, I actually had an elementary student ask me at the end of art, “Do we get grades in art? I never knew!” Now keep in mind it was a lower level art student, but I feel there is so much push on academics, that the fine arts are dying. Students NEED to relax with art, appreciate art, find the emotion in art and yes, play. But that is hard to put a grade on. I grade on classroom participation and their projects, but I find the hard part on the projects. But alas I am in a school and a community that LOVES their grades. We tried to cut out Kindergarten grades for the special classes of PE music and art and it didn’t go over very well. I give very few S+ grades ( like an A+) but I do give a lot of A- and B grades. And most of my very good artist in high school don’t receive A’s and B’s any where else, and yes they earn them. So yes my classes look easy until one of those students who receives A’s in all the other classes tries it. They hate it because there is no right or wrong way. They need to find the way and they have a hard time with that. Art is also about teaching how to get from point A to point Z without being told how to do that. Creative process and experimentation seem to leave somewhere in upper elementary. My students in high school hate when I say, “what do you think, what don’t you like?” Again its about the process as much as it is about the end product.

  • Debby McGann

    PS: This is some of my students’ artwork…just in case anyone was wondering about results…

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  • Katherine Boiczyk

    Melissa, how would you assess (with evidence) high school students? I teach at the high school level and really NEED to change how I “assess” because all I feel like I’m doing is trying to give numbers to projects because that is what my grading program and school tells me to do. BUT I have a fundamental problem with it- always have- always will- and I feel it’s time for a change- the right kind of assessments. But I still need to quantify and document and track..
    For example, say you’re teaching 2 point perspective and so the unit is focused around applying color, value, perspective and fantasy to create an original work of art that demonstrates their knowledge of all of that to evoke a reaction from viewers.. how would I go about assessing all of it- as that unit is FILLED with specific facts (color theory, technique of blending, technique of creating linear perspective, etc)? Do you you rubrics? I KNOW how each and every one of my students is doing at all times, how they grow, what they struggle with, but I STRUGGLE with quantifying it and basically “proving” and “documenting” it all.
    -Kate from CT

    • James Skinner

      I am having the same problem, but I am looking at some solutions using multiple platforms to stand on. One is that I use Google Classroom as my lms. My students all hand in their work on there so I know have a record of every art piece they have done. From there I am looking at using this data to make a longitudinal assessment of their artistic growth based on thing they have developed over the year. I want to use things like Sketchbook work and the Studio habits to drive my grading but here is where I am stuck. Should one just use observation of use of the studio habits and keep a checklist or something else when assessing the students? I feel like this is a good platform to work from though… thoughts?

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