Essential Theatre Standards in Washington State

Context: In 2002, the arts were identified as a core academic subject in the State of Washington by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); this act defined the arts as consisting of four distinct disciplines: dance, music, theatre, and visual arts (Dorn, Joseph, Vavrus, 2011). ESEA essentially established that the arts were equally important to all other subjects because only a well-rounded education can increase the academic development of every student. Because of this, standards were created for each of the arts (O1).

The learning standards for the arts, including Theatre, can be found on the website for Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). They can be viewed online or downloaded as a PDF or Word document.

Searching for standards is easy, providing that there is an existing knowledge of the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR) for the arts. The first EALR is centered on student understanding of arts knowledge, the second focuses on the student artistic process of creation, the third emphasizes student communication through the arts, and the fourth demands that students make connections across the arts and other disciplines (Dorn, et. al, 2011). A comprehensive chart of the four EALR can be found at the conclusion of this document (see Figure One).


1 The student understands and applies arts knowledge and skills in dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. CREATING: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
2 The student uses the artistic processes of creating, performing/presenting, and responding to demonstrate thinking skills in dance, music, theatre, and visual arts. PERFORMING: Performing (dance, music, theatre): Realizing artistic ideas and work through interpretation and presentation.Presenting (visual arts): Interpreting and sharing artistic work.Producing (media arts): Realizing and presenting artistic ideas and work.
3 The student communicates through the arts (dance, music, theatre, and visual arts). CONNECTING: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
4 The student makes connections within and across the arts (dance, music, theatre, and visual arts) to other disciplines, life, cultures, and work. RESPONDING: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.


The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have many connections to the work in Theatre (Common Core, Inc., 2014). The CCSS in English Language Arts often align with a theatre curriculum in activities such as reading a play or writing a play. This is most applicable when either reading a text or engaging in playwriting. The authors of the common core have recognized the significance of the arts and have developed seven guiding principles for the general teaching of the arts. These principles include: 1) “Studying works of arts as training in close observation across the arts disciplines and preparing students to create and perform in the arts” and 2) “Providing an explicit learning progression in the arts disciplines along the pre-k – grade 12 continuum that is developmentally appropriate.”

Beyond state standards, there were the National Standards for Theatre Education, created by the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (National Standards for Theatre and Education, n.d.). These standards evolved into the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS) in 2013 and are based in four categories: Creating, Performing/Presenting/Producing, Responding, and Connecting (Coalition for Core Arts Standards, 2014). These standards can be referenced by grade or content area. The standards also provide model cornerstone assessments that are ready to be used in the classroom. One might note that the four core content areas in the NCAS mirror the EALR of Washington State (see figure 1).

Organization: In the EALR system each standard is known as a Grade Level Expectation (GLE). This is a grade-specific requirement that “includes a statement of cognitive demand and the essential content or process to be learned (Dorn, et. al 2011).” Each GLE is composed of three numbers. The first represents one of the four arts EALR, which is general and applies to all arts. The second represents the curriculum component, which specifies the EALR in the subject matter. The third represents the specific GLE under that component. Here is an example of the first GLE for sixth grade drama, listed under the corresponding EALR and Component:

“EALR 1: The student understands and applies arts knowledge and skills in dance, music, theatre, and visual arts.”

Component 1.1 “Understands and applies theatre concepts and vocabulary.

GLE 1.1.1 “Understands the elements of theatre in scripts, and/or performances. (Dorn, et. al, 2011)

Each GLE has two or three more corresponding sections: Evidence of Learning, Examples, and (for some GLE) an OSPI-Developed Arts Performance Assessment (The Arts Classroom-Based Performance Assessments, 2011).

Specifics: There are approximately 25 GLE for each grade level or grade level group (for example, seventh and eighth grade are combined into one grade level group). This includes: the four EALR, three to four components for each EALR, and one to 11 GLE for each component (though there are typically only one or two GLE for each component). Each GLE is generally one sentence long. Though the added content from “Evidence of Learning” and “Examples” can generate up to another half of a page in text.

The listed GLE call for students to engage in a variety of actions. Most frequently noted are directions to apply, to create, to generate, to explore, and to analyze the content specified in the EALR and component. They are generally written in a way that is accessible to students, at least at the middle school level and above. The language is topical and provides an ideal combination of academic words and standard speech.

Assessment: The GLE include standardized assessments that are provided by OSPI. In a 2013 report,[1] 94 – 96% of school districts in Washington State used the arts based assessments (Dorn, 2013). In an optional survey of these schools (82 districts responded) respondents noted the following themes regarding state assessments (Dorn, 2013):

  • The assessments help teachers have a common focus for their discussions and comparisons of student work
  • The assessments provide consistency in the curriculum and ensure that various elements are covered in the class
  • The assessments have assured that students receive a well-rounded experience
  • The assessments made teachers aware of their responsibilities to collect evidence of student learning with some criteria

None of these results are surprising. A possible strength with the GLE system, in the arts, is that not every GLE has a standardized assessment that corresponds. Teachers are left to their own devices to assess student progress in these remaining areas. In the arts, this allows teachers to see the student holistically or on a spectrum of multiple aspects while still holding their students accountable for state standards (P3).

Implications: In general, the standards for theatre are written with an open-ended approach to teaching. Which, because it is a discipline based in creativity, is a significant asset. Theatre is rooted in two significant forces: cultural context and established work. This leads educators toward two teaching approaches: socio-cultural and constructivism.

Theatre has always had a connection to the culture and community in which it is performed. The training of a young theatre artist does not need to be any different. Using a social-cultural approach to teaching, both the teacher and the student can engage in a dialectical engagement with the content; they must exchange ideas that are content based, standards based, and artistically based so that the student may form their opinion of the artistic work. The GLE emphasize student involvement and participation in shaping the outcome of projects. There is not “one way” to do the work. There are many great acting philosophies and an equal number of approaches and outcomes to the work that should be considered valid. The GLE structure embraces this ambiguity. The acceptable range of output, some of which is assessed in a formal way, allows the students to participate in their own evaluation and in the evaluation of others. In doing so, they can recognize the multiple ways to create a successful piece of theatre or to demonstrate a specific skill (as a GLE might be designed for).

The second approach to teaching theatre is constructivist. Inside of this problem based model students can encounter the various GLE and solve the work together. In theatre education, the constructivist approach allows for both an open-ended result (which mirrors the “real world” theatre community) and for periodic assessment of each GLE. Lastly, this problem and solution based approach can last for any duration of curriculum time. It may be only a few minutes long as each student solves a quick dramatic problem related to a GLE or it may last for multiple weeks as the students work together (perhaps producing a play) and address multiple GLE.

With state standards, national standards, and common core standard influences, theatre arts has an elegant problem to solve. While the national standards are attractive, and applicable to the classroom, the state EALR standards should be followed and the elements of the common core that theatre arts addresses should also be adhered to. After all, the teacher is an agent of the state. If, the teacher can also align the curriculum to the national standards, it will only make their course content stronger and their progress monitoring of each student more reliable.







The Arts Classroom-Based Performance Assessments (CBPAs). (2011, January 1). The Arts Classroom-Based Performance Assessments (CBPAs). Retrieved July 17, 2014, from

Coalition for Core Arts Standards. (2014, January 1). National Core Arts Standards. Home. Retrieved July 17, 2014, from

Coleman, D. (2014, January 1). Guiding Principles for the Arts Grades K–12. . Retrieved July 18, 2014, from

Common Core, Inc. (2014, January 1). The Arts and the Common Core Curriculum Mapping Project. Retrieved July 18, 2014, from

Dorn, R., Joseph, A., & Vavrus, J. (2011, April 1). Washington State, K-12, The Arts Learning Standards. Retrieved July 17, 2014, from

Dorn, R. (2013, August 1). SUMMARY OF FINDINGS 2012‒13 OSPI-Developed Assessments. Retrieved July 17, 2014, from

National Standards for Theatre Education – American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). (n.d.). National Standards for Theatre Education, Grades 5-8 – American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE). Retrieved July 18, 2014, from

[1] It should be noted that the survey included Social Studies, The Arts, Health, Fitness, and Educational Technology and that there is no differentiation in the respondents’ affiliation to one or more than one of these content areas.

Author: David Orace Kelly

International Teacher - Arts and Education Leader

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