Formative assessments are different from evaluations. The latter are meant to quantify the final results of learning, and are usually associated with summative data. The former are designed to give both teacher and student with useful feedback on how teaching and learning is going in a specific area. Because of this, it is best if formative assessments are highly specific so that the feedback they provide is clear and useful. Because summative assessments are evaluations of an end product, specific data is not necessary. All of the component parts measured in a formative assessment are applied to the task being summatively assessed. A high rating on a summative assessment indicates, among other things, that the elements formatively assessed along the way and successfully mastered by the students are indeed related to what is summatively assessed, and that the students successfully applied them. To better understand the distinction between a specific formative assessment and a more general summative assessment, let us take a look at teaching and learning singing.
If we assume that we are starting at the very beginning, students will not yet have the vocabulary or the skills to score well on a formative assessment of specific skills and techniques. Such an assessment may be given as a benchmark assessment so that growth can be measured at a later time, but it cannot be assumed that the students will show meaningful proficiency because no teaching or learning has yet taken place. Such an assessment might ask students to perform certain exercises. For example, they might be asked to hum a sustained note while pulsing from the abdomen to demonstrate control of the abdominal muscles during vocalization. They might also be asked to sing on each vowel to assess the shape of the mouth, position of the larynx, and overall resonance, or to sing a phrase that began in the lower adjustment voice, ascending into the upper adjustment voice, and then descended back down in order to assess proper use of the voice in each register.
Each of these assessment items would generate specific data on the student’s overall singing. Students and teacher alike would have data on abdominal lift, vowel formation, resonance and placement. With data this specific, the teacher and student can work with each student based on the data and individual needs. When problem areas are improved upon, overall singing, will have improved, and the students and teacher will know exactly why, and will know which areas still need more attention and which ones do not, or can be strengthened further. With this assessment approach, excellent singing is being put together, skill by skill, technique by technique, until a complete singing voice is present. The singer will continue to improve upon their singing as skills and maturation progress, but all components of an excellent singing voice will be operational as the formative assessment data is utilized.
With this in mind, it is necessary for the music teacher to think through the large concepts and break them down into the individual competencies needed to gain proficiency at the the goal, be it performing, responding, creating or connecting. Teaching students musical forms and then assessing them on identifying forms isn’t enough. While some students will be able to go from “learning about” to identification, others will not. What competencies are needed to differentiate one theme from another, or to differentiate between a motif, a phrase, and a theme? Are the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony a motif or a theme? Where does the second theme begin? How do you know? These are questions students need to be able to answer after targeted instruction has been given. Certainly a listener needs to recognize contrasts between themes to realize they are separate, and the ability to hear the key change from the tonic to the dominant in sonata form is also key. These competencies need to be taught as steps along the way to fully understanding the use of themes in musical form.
One way of going about thinking through the large concepts and breaking them down into their individual competencies is to start with the end goal, and then work backwards. First, write down what you want students to be able to do and know. Next, consider where they are and what instruction will be needed to get them from where they are to the goal. Write down the steps they will need to complete. If the goal is for them to write a rhythm composition and perform it accurately, then the steps might include identify note types, chant rhythm patterns, identify how many sounds are within each beat, improvise rhythm patterns, write down rhythm patterns, select rhythm patterns to convey an expressive intent, write down rhythm patterns that convey an expressive intent, practice performing the patterns, perform the patterns. Each step along the way will be the focus of teaching and learning, and most if not all will be formativesly assessed. Students would spend more time on any given step if a formative assessment indicated they were not ready to go on. At the completion of all steps, students would perform their compositions and be assessed on the entire project on a rubric that included each step, and summarized the final product with an overall score. On a rubric that goes 1-4 and has four steps on it, the highest possible score is sixteen. I like to assign a final rubric score based on ranges of scores. A student with a rubric score of 13-16 gets a final rubric score of 4. A score of 10-12 becomes a final score of 3, 7-9 is a 2, and less than 7 translates to a final score of 1. This type of scoring system is necessary because using rubric score to determine a percentage score distorts the results. For example, a student could have gotten 3 out of 4 points on every item but performed at a considerably higher level than 75%. The final rubric score must accurately summarize the quality of work the student has done on the goal task; it must accurately represent to what extent the student knows what you wanted him or her to know, and can do what you wanted him or her to be able to do as a result of your instruction.