Typhani Harris | October 2014

Grading in the Arts

When it comes to grading in the arts, we run into the reality that grading artwork is ultimately subjective.

Even with all the rubrics in the world, there is still a lens by which we view art subconsciously. How do we attach an evaluative number to an artistic process?   How do we attach numbers and letters to creative exploration?

When it comes to the subject of dance, it is no secret that most students don’t have the opportunity to experience dance in educational institutions throughout their primary years.  So, when we get them in high school they are at a beginning level.  Unlike math, english, even music, and visual art, most students come to high school dance class with little to no prior knowledge.  On a positive note, some may have studio technique training, however this can also become a hinderance if the technique was improperly taught or if the mindset is so that the thought of academic dance is a foreign concept.

Even if they are trained in technique they may have no association with reading and writing in dance, or important aspects of a dance education such as composition, kinesiology, and production.  So, regardless students begin our high school dance classes on a level, yet beginning, playing field.  Sometimes we even run into a struggle with students and parents regarding the perception of dance education.

Due to this, I have tried many different approaches to grading in the dance class, but what has seemed to work best is a standards based grading system, the goal being that the students master the standards, no matter how long it takes.


I separate grades into 2 categories: movement and theory.  I attach letter grades to the following concepts: A= Mastery, B= Proficient, C= Needs Practice, leaving a C as the lowest possible grade (unless a student does not complete an assignment).  To make these concepts more tangible and concrete, I explain to the students that Mastery is the point at which you can essentially teach the skill, Proficient is where you understand the concept but are not necessarily ready to teach, and Needs Practice is just that, you need a little more practice.


When it comes to movement, the amount of time it takes to perfect a skill varies with every student, so I believe that the students should have the opportunity to retake movement assessments as many times as necessary in order to confidently and accurately execute the movement.  With this in mind, I hand out grade reports each month allowing students to see how they are progressing through their dance education.  At any time the students can request an additional assessment of a skill that they feel they have improved.  Most of the time this can occur right during class, however it is the students responsibility to request the additional assessment before class starts so that I can watch the specific skill.


It is imperative that we teach the theory behind the art of dance, including terminology, history, kinesiology, however we need to assess students in theory in a way that goes beyond that of regurgitation and rote memorization.  If we just give simple vocabulary tests, once, and then never revisit or rearrange the questioning to involve more critical thinking, then the information will not be committed to long term memory.  Each week I introduce new concepts, whether they be new terms, compositional devices, or historical connections.  I make a point to post these concepts on either the wall or the board and revisit them daily.

I assess the students in written exams each week, which is expected, but those same concepts are on the assessments each week.  Essentially, their exams get more lengthy as the weeks go on because we continuously add new concepts, this way they continue to show their knowledge of everything, even what they learned on the first week.

Grading is an inevitable process in our profession, but making it meaningful is the most difficult part.

Remember that our dance students at the secondary level are ultimately beginning students.  We need to be mindful of the fact that they have been learning about their core subjects for almost a decade by the time they get to high school, yet dance is a brand new language, a brand new subject, a brand new experience, and we need to give them the opportunity to fail, take risks, and practice without their academic transcript grade suffering.

Next Week: Common Core

Writing Assessments that Encourage Critical Thinking

There are some definite aspects of dance education that is in need of simple memorization, however, once the memorization has occurred how do we work the concepts into the critical thinking process?

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Executive Director of Academic Affairs, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.