We music educators sometimes have difficulty assessing our students. There are several reasons for this, including large student loads and limited instructional time, but perhaps one of the most important reasons is that assessment is something we don’t fully understand. What purpose should be achieved by using assessment? What kinds of assessments are there, and which one is best suited for a particular purpose? I will discuss the answers to these questions today.
To begin, there are two main types of assessment: formative, and summative. Our troubles with assessment often begin here, when we confuse these two assessment types. Formative assessment is used to “monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that teachers can use to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. Formative assessments help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work, and help teachers recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately. Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value.” (Carnegie Mellon) Formative assessments are not used as the basis for project, homework, test, or report card grades. Instead, they provided feedback that prepares students to be graded on future evaluations. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:
- submit one or two sentences identifying the main learning point of a class (This could be an “exit ticket.)
- turn in a music composition project for early feedback
- take a practice test
- give a performance that is adjudicated using a performance rubric.
- Feedback given by conductors and private tutors during rehearsals and lessons. (These should be documented so they can be referred back to.)
Rubrics tend to work well for music, because much of what is experienced and learned in music classes is subjective. Often, music teachers are not interested in responses that are “right” or “wrong” but instead are interested in to what extend certain aspects of music making occurred. For example, whereas a language arts teacher might count up the number of errors in an essay, a music teacher would probably not count up the number of wrong notes in a performance. Instead, the music teacher would find an accurate description of the success of the performance from rubric criteria that might include, “made some errors, but they did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the performance,” “made some errors, and they did detract from the overall enjoyment of the performance.” These two statement recognize that there is a factor more important than the number of errors made, and that factor is what kind of errors were made; how impactful were those errors on the performance. Priority is given to the performance being enjoyable and expressive over it being note perfect. Enjoyable is a subjective unit of measure that is made measurable by use of the rubric.
As formative assessments, assignments that are turned in are not given a final grade, but are given comments and returned to the student for further work. Support is provided to guide the student in incorporating the feedback into a more successful revision of the same assignment. This cycle of student producing work, passing it in to the teacher (or peers) for feedback, and then returning to the work for feedback is the essence of formative assessment because it walks the student through the process of shaping work into a finished product of the highest possible quality. Once the student work has been revised and put in the best possible condition, then it is ready to be assessed summatively.
Summative assessment is used to “to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a high point value. Summative assessments are used as the basis for project, homework, test, or report card grades. They are given at the end of a project, unit, semester, or course, and should reflect the extent to which students have met the goals and objectives of that unit, semester or course. Summative assessments are not used to provide ongoing feedback during work, they are used to provide a final evaluation of the finished work. Whereas music teachers might adjudicate their students and give them feedback on their performance that they can use as they continue to prepare for an audition (formative assessment), eventually the students will go to the audition (summative assessment), and either be accepted or not accepted, for example, into a college music degree program, or to participate in a music festival, perhaps an all-state or all-county festival.
Formative assessments tend to be more incremental in that they measure how a student is doing in stages or steps toward completing a larger work. It is a tool used during the learning process. Summative assessments tend to be more holistic in that they measure how a student has done on the completed larger work. It is a tool used at the completion of the learning process. The two types of assessment work hand in hand. When effective formative assessment has taken place, student success rates will be higher on the summative assessment, teaching will be more effective, and student learning will be significant. When formative assessment is ineffective or missing altogether, students will generally to more poorly on summative assessments because they haven’t been as well prepared, and haven’t learned as effectively without the feedback that formative assessment provides.