Anti-test Protest–Kelly Finlaw

29 03 2012

(Created in partial completion of ART 575: Arts in Communication and Social Commentary)

Medium: Digital Photography

This artwork is a response to the use of testing as a sole means of assessment in public schools, specifically in New York City.  This artwork falls into the category of “Social Commentary” in that Art as Social Commentary is art that both reflects and creates awareness of political, environmental, religious, and social issues. “ (Corbitt, 2012).  Because this artwork seeks to raise a critical awareness of the need to change, I would see myself as an “Urban Prophet” (Corbitt, 2003).   Specifcally, this falls under the category of “critical movement ideology” because it challenges the “dominant ideas, values, and tactics” of the given institution (Reed, 2005).

The students in the artwork are all eighth-grade students in a public middle school in New York City.  The numbers that they are holding represent the scores that students in the state receive each year, beginning in the third grade, on their state tests. New York State uses a four point grading system to assess the level of each student, with four being the highest level attainable.  Receiving a “two” or higher is passing.  Receiving a “one” is failing and results in summer school.

Accountability in public education is not an ideal that we should hope to reach at some point in the future.  It is a real need that must be addressed in the present.  The public education system in America is failing its students in tremendous ways, not only in relation to other countries, but also by our own standards. In response to below average reading levels, elevated dropout rates, failing schools, and ill-prepared graduates entering college and the workforce, the department of education has created initiatives to reform the system. While these strategic moves may be made with the best motives, their effects have been detrimental to the educational system as well as individual students.  Having a state test in order to determine the success of each student seems like a logical response to the brokenness of the system.  These tests, however, have become the sole means used to evaluate the entirety of a child.

Teaching does not take place in a vacuum.  Students do not leave their emotional, physical, or social baggage at the door when they come to school everyday.  They are whole beings, with more needs than can be addressed in one classroom.  Specifically, in an urban context like New York City, the students are dealing with issues at home and in their communities that are far beyond their maturity levels. The students in my school have expressed that they have at least one adult in the building that they trust and feel safe to approach.  This is movement in the right direction.

To take any one child and rate their worth according to a test that they take one day a year is close to insanity.  At least in NYC, students are so tied to their test scores that they feel as though they are labeled by them.  If a student is a low-level performer and hears this about himself or herself from the third grade on, they begin to internalize these numbers.  They become these numbers, regardless of the grades in their classes, their skills in non-tested areas, their character as people, or their social skills.

The emphasis on these tests is so great that schools have changed their entire curriculum to teach to the tests, hoping that their students will be more equipped to perform well on the one day of the year that they will be assessed.  In order to prepare for the test, schools have numerous practice tests, or baseline assessments.  These days are dry runs for the real test and all “testing conditions” are in place.  This means that the entire school takes the test as though it is the real test, changing the schedule of classes and lunch periods in order to prepare.  Because there are two tested subjects and multiple baseline assessments for each, the students have taken over 4 non-official days devoted to testing.  This is not including their regular tests as administered in other subject areas.

Mathematics and literacy are the only two tested subjects in New York City.  This phenomenon creates a culture of apathy for other subjects.  No one can be held back for failing dance, art, gym, or any other non-tested subject.  As an art teacher in NYC, it is difficult to motivate the struggling student to care about their grade in art.  I see this as one of my greatest obstacles in the system, but love the challenge.  It is also a social experiment and study of human motivation.  I honestly feel like I have a wonderful relationship with each of my students to the point that I can get them to do their artwork as a response to our relationship, but not out of a desire for their success in school, because they will never be penalized for failing art.

Furthermore, test scores have been used as weapons against teachers and schools in recent years.  This has become such an issue that teachers have been denied tenure on the basis of their students’ scores.  Once again, the motive of keeping teachers accountable is not ill-conceived, but the effects of using scores to rate them puts students in the middle of yet anther battle that is not theirs to fight.  Imagine determining the roster for specific classes in a school year.  Imagine battling over the smartest kids and manipulating the system so that your scores will increase your job security.  What about the student that comes to school three days of every month? You may have called their homes, Child Services, and even the police, but they remain truant.  This child will take a test that determines your success as a teacher and, in response, this child becomes the hot potato instead of the young person in need of serious attention.

These issues are systemic.  They are deeply tied to community, family, and culture.  And they cannot be solved with the false notion that successfully passing a test means success in education.

I do not believe that schools should be completely self-governing with no type of accountability.  I even understand why tests are used to the degree that they are.  But having seen the effects of an overemphasis on testing, I do not believe that it is a viable means to assess a child, teacher, or school.  There are more options available to our educational system than taking a test one day a year.  Personally, I would propose portfolio reviews and exit interviews.  These would at least give a holistic view of a child and their successes in multiple areas of education.  It would be far more progressive than using a coded answer sheet to determine whether a child passes or fails.
As with any endeavor involving children, parent consent is the first step.  While every student in my school is required to fill out a “media consent form” and agree to allow their child to be photographed, this project was not directly related to the department of education.  As a precaution, I required each student involved in this project to sign and return a separate permission slip.  I then sat down with he students and had a detailed discussion about the project, my views of testing, and what we would be doing.   Next, I asked them what they would want someone that makes laws about their education to know about them.  I asked what sorts of things are on their minds, what things are happening in their lives that no one sees, and what do they hope to be in the future.  I recorded this information and wrote their responses on plain white paper.

Initially, I explained that they would be completely covering their faces with the papers and that they would not be recognized in the final piece. Not a single student approved of this idea and asked if they could show part of their face around the paper.  Immediately, this was a better idea than my own and I agreed.

Each student stood against the lockers in my room and chose different papers to hold in front of their faces.  Not every paper is a reflection of the student’s specific thought, hope, feeling, or test score.  Instead, each is a general representation of the collective group, so that no student publicly owned any low score or embarrassing secret.

Next I uploaded, enhanced, and resized the images on a black background, carefully placing the typographic message between lines of photos.  This was the finished piece.

Intended audience and placement
This piece is one that is meant for the board members in the department of education, both nationally and locally.  This could be posted on the Internet, sent as an email, or mailed as a hard copy.  It could also be made into a flyer and posted at district offices; the air-conditioned places where people make laws about children that they have never seen.

Because I am the least computer literate person alive and have never taken a graphic design course in my entire life, this was a difficult piece to create.  I know nothing of Photoshop or Illustrator.  My comfort level rests in clay, paint, pens, and glue.  I tried, for an extended period of time to print these photos so that I could mount them and create this piece in my chosen medium.  However, I could not figure out how to use the machine and resorted to using a computer.  I used a blank PowerPoint slide and iPhoto to manipulate the images.  I the used “grabber” to capture the final image and then enhanced it through iPhoto.  The entire process was a challenge.

Additionally, it was challenging to know what message to send with the words I chose to add.  I spent an agonizing amount of time picking the exact phase to use.  I wanted to express my message with as few words as possible and kept ending with a full paragraph.  I had to stop, go to bed, and decide what to do the next morning when I had rested.  I ended with one sentence that I felt fully represented my message.


Corbitt, N. (Professor) (2012, January 19). Arts: Social Commentary and Social Marketing. Arts and Social Commentary. Lecture conducted from Eastern Universtiy, Philadelphia.

Corbitt, J. N., & Early, V. (2003). Taking it to the streets: using the arts to transform your community. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Reed, T.V. (2005) The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle




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