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Draw your own conclusions for art's sake

Brendan Barry describes a simple way to assess children's drawing abilities.

Artists and teachers such as Picasso, Ernst and Klee attached great significance to the symbolism and vitality of child art. Children's early images of the world are drawn to a formula or scheme, their own interpretations of reality. These go from scribbling, through a number of distinct stages, towards realism.

In recent years teachers have been encouraged to consider teaching as the imparting of techniques and experiences to develop children's artistic skills.

But this has been difficult because of primary staff shifting between year groups and schools, often unsure of the relative standards of their pupils, and specialist art teachers in secondary being unaware of the developmental stages in primary.

In an effort to bridge this divide, the 5-14 initiative has tried to encourage teachers to see the children's development as a continuum, and to teach to the ability and needs of the pupil. However, in order to assess these, primary and secondary teachers must have a set of similar standards.

As an art principal teaching in an area of multiple deprivation, several factors combined to focus my attention on 5-14 assessment.

One of the targets we set for the department was to assess the ability levels of the new Secondary 1 year group, to make our teaching more effective.

From our associate primaries we had learned that one pupil in our intake group was very gifted in language and mathematics, while others needed extra support.

We wanted to know if we could identify the pupils, and if their abilities would be correspondingly reflected in art.

In Elements of Progression in Expressive Arts 5-14 Art, the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum identifies two major aspects in children's art: "the drive for reality" and "perspective, proportion and scale".

It gives a wide range of situations and examples of work from early schema to mature observation. Examples of figure drawing are used as major indicators; the question was how to devise a consistent way of assessing these.

We decided to look at an assessment format which has been used for years in learning support departments.

This involves the drawing of a human figure and is valid for children up to the age of 12.

The test was devised in the 1920s by Florence Goodenough, an American child psychologist who appreciated the developmental changes in children's art and produced a system of IQ assessment based on observable factors in their work.

It was then adjusted in the 1940s to test for maturation, and later refined to identify emotional factors. The test is structured and slow to mark.

It would clearly require a lot of time to train staff and to mark a whole year group. However, teachers can benefit from a simple way of identifying the general stages.

Hence, we decided to group the main factors in the Goodenough test, to match levels A to E in the 5-14 Expressive Arts guidelines.

* Level A body, parts * Level B body, parts, clothing and rough detail * Level C body, parts, clothing, rough detail, attempts at proportion, neck visible * Level D body, parts, clothing, detail, fair proportion * Level E body, parts, clothing, fine detail, good proportion, perspective.

We introduced figure drawing as part of our course. Pupils were asked to draw a male and female figure, putting in as much detail as they wished. They could include a background, and were given an hour to complete the task.

The drawings were then sorted into appropriate levels, and allowance made forfactors which appeared in one or other drawing. No marks were taken away for not completing the task.

The time taken to mark them was about two minutes per pupil, so 40 minutes for a whole class of 20. When raw scores were turned into a percentage of the year group, they were as follows: * 27.2 per cent achieved Level B (ages 6-8) * 54.5 per cent Level C (8-10) * 17.1 per cent Level D (10-11) * 1.2 per cent Level E (12-12+)

The results revealed a worrying percentage of children in the year group drawing well below their chronological age.

We cross-checked the results with primary reports on other subjects and found that they matched.

This was a small sample, but it nevertheless indicated that the form of assessment was simple to learn and operate, speedy to mark, valid for teachers' needs, able to identify specific groups and provide a view of ability levels across a year group.

Along with other art work from the pupils, it could help to provide a more holistic assessment of performance within a school or department.

Brendan Berry is principal teacher of art in a Glasgow secondary school.

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