There is no question in my mind that music is fun. It is fun to perform, fun to teach, fun to listen to, dance to, create, even fun to practice. It has been that way for me since my childhood, and it is that way for many, perhaps even most of the children I teach. Sometimes, I think music is too much fun, so much so that it prevents students and parents from taking music seriously as a subject in school. When a student receives a low grade for a marking period in music, frequently a parent will ask, “how could my child get such a low grade in music?” They can understand a low grade in science, or English, or social studies, but in music? They think all there is to music is singing songs and having fun.
Truth be told, for a long while singing songs and having fun was all that children did in many music classes. If a child was present and made an effort to sing well, they got high marks. But now, with assessments and evaluations required in every subject, including music, that kind of grading scheme just won’t do. Music grades have to be documented, student work must be assessed and evaluated, and data must be collected. While educators may not agree that the level of testing that has become prevalent in education is healthy or even constructive, assessing student progress and growth, and using those assessments to inform planning, teaching, and learning is a good thing for music education.
When students sing in class, it must not always be group singing. Students must also sing alone, and have that solo singing assessed. Doing so informs the teacher of areas of strength and weakness. This information can then be used to plan individualized instruction, and can make the teacher alert to individual student needs even as the whole class is singing together. Assessment results also help focus students on areas that need their attention and offer encouragement by revealing areas of proficiency. Assessments in music can take the form of recorded solo performances, recorded individual performances while singing in a group, self-evaluations of solo or group performances, written responses to music including analyses and critical reviews, notated compositions assessed with a rubric, and writing about music using music vocabulary.
Today, I had one of my eighth grade classes do an analysis of two songs they had selected for responding last week. The songs had been selected using criteria we wrote together, based on interests, knowledge, ability, and context. First, we discussed what an analysis is. I told them that to analyze something you must identify parts of the thing you are analyzing, and then explain how the parts work together to make the thing work. I provided two examples: a phone and a sentence. Then I asked them to name parts found in music. They came up with rhythm, tempo, melody, musical ideas, and timbre. I told them to listen for those parts while they listened to the song, and to write down any other parts they heard along the way. Eventually we added ostinato, rhythm section, background singers, verse and refrain. Finally, I asked them to write a paragraph that explained how the parts they had listed worked together to make the music. They recognized that the ostinato that began one of the songs continued under the voice, and that the background singers sang accented notes that became part of the rhythm section. This was good analysis, and it revealed aspects of the song that the students had never noticed or considered before. They practiced responding to music at a deeper level of observation and understanding than they were accustomed to, and the new discoveries proved exciting for them and me.
Beyond what the students learned from this activity, I also acquired a basis on which to assess the depth of each student’s response to two songs that they were already familiar enough with to select for the activity. My assessment of their written work will guide my planning for their next class. For them, they now realize that just because a song is familiar through repeated hearing, there still can be brand new things to discover and learn from it. On another day, they will sing one of these two songs either individually or as a group. While they sing, they will record their voice on their mobile device. The students have a portfolio of such recordings, so that they can track their progress at improving their singing. Charting progress is important. I tell them that in order to know how you’re doing, you have to know three things: Where you started, where you are, and where you want to end up. By comparing recordings made at intervals of weeks within a marking term, students can assess each performance and track their own progress, and I can track it too. To keep them honest, I reward students for self-assessments that are close to mine, Tracking progress depends on accurate data.
With portfolios, written responses to music, and some creative work as well, my grading of students is easily defensible to any questioning parent, and the quality of my teaching and of my students’ learning grows together. When a parent of a child who has gotten a low grade in my class sees the evidence, their indignation usually turns to admiration, and they leave assuring me that their child will do better from now on, now that they know what is expected. That is the best possible result, because achieving growth is the goal.