How To Keep Performance Assessment in Drama Objective

It has been a week or so since my last post on The Drama Teacher. Why? Blame the end of semester assessment and reporting! 133 school reports later, I have finally come up for air.

Trudging along in the middle of my little reporting marathon, I was reminded of the problem with objectivity in performance assessment in drama/theatre studies. When the work being assessed suddenly isn’t a series of words on the page, but rather a live expression of an art form in front of the teacher/assessor, we often run into issues with objectivity.

When watching one of your students perform a solo or monologue performance for assessment, it is so easy sometimes to fall into the trap of being subjective. If the criteria is purely based on the performance itself, teachers must ignore everything that happened before it. Not turning up to class is irrelevant. Being lazy and putting the performance together at the last minute is equally irrelevant. The student’s previous performance assessment in drama is also irrelevant, how hard he or she tried with this particular performance is another irrelevance. The performance based on select criteria is the only relevance here. Those few moments in time are all that matters.

In Victoria, one of our senior drama studies has a 7-minute solo performance examination at the end of Year 12. This student-written and directed piece based on a chosen examination structure is a monster of a task. “Rigourous” is putting it lightly. Partly because this exam task is so demanding, and partly because it is externally assessed by some of our peers, each year teachers discuss with me how unfair, biased or subjective its assessment is. I’ve had students wing a “B” for this task working mainly in the last few days, others strive for weeks on end preparing in vain for their “D+”, and more still get “B”‘s that I thought should have been “A”‘s.

Unfortunately, effort is both a huge part of this task and yet irrelevant at the same time. The assessors grade what they see before them. They have no prior knowledge of the candidate and therefore no reasonable opportunity for bias or subjectivity. And this is exactly how we must be as drama/theatre teachers at school with our own students we seen every day. Ignore everything that comes before the assessment and grade what you see in the moment, regardless of gender, age, prior ability or misfortune. Know the criteria and mark accordingly.

Over the years, I have had my fair share of mums and dads (and a few students) question a performance grade in drama. My backup is purely academic. These were the criteria, and this is what was presented before me in the performance. There’s no room for subjectivity in drama assessment. My opinion as an educator, which formed the final assessment, is based purely on knowledge of the discipline, not emotion. Just because it is a living art form does not mean we can justify opportunities to be biased or subjective. While there is often great joy in seeing a student perform in drama, assessment on performance is clinical, rational and straightforward.

Next time we want to have a whinge about how external assessors grade our students in a drama performance exam, we should firstly appreciate how difficult their task actually is, secondly realise the system in place encourages academic objectivity not subjectivity, and thirdly attempt to copy this practice in our own classrooms at school. Performance assessment in drama is challenging for all of us at the best of times. Spare a thought for the poor graduate teacher thrown into the deep end, the drama teacher without any colleagues in their department to discuss assessment with, the isolated teacher with no networking opportunities at other schools or the teacher of drama with little or no qualifications in this area. Clear, academic assessment criteria understood by both teacher and student at the beginning of a performance task is all we need to adhere to in the final assessment.

The other day a student said to me in the corridor “You know in my rehearsal last week, how I struggled making my use of symbol clear with my hand prop? Well, I hope it is clear for you in my assessment performance tomorrow!” I replied to her “What rehearsal? What symbol? Tomorrow, I will forget everything and simply grade what I see when you enter the room”.

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