Assessment and data collection can be a irksome thing for music teachers. On the one hand, our subject is typically not included in mandated standardized testing, so there are not mandated assessments and reporting systems in place for us. On the other hand, we often feel as though music can not be assessed, because artistic work is subjective and therefore not suitable for assessment. While the first point is true, and hopefully will remain so, the second point is not true, and pleading or case with it does more harm than good. If we are in fact teaching our students anything, there must be a way for both students and teacher to know when and if they have succeeded in learning and teaching, respectively. If we as music educators are unsure of how to assess our students, then the problem is not that music cannot be assessed, it is that we have not designed our units, lessons, and assessments properly.
If music teachers are going to get anywhere with the National Core Arts Standards, then we need to realize that they are more than just standards; they are a guide to better teaching and therefore betting planning. The heart and soul of these standards is Understanding by Design, or UbD, which a process for planning instructional units based on effective goal setting, assessment building, and task constructing. The music standards with the UbD structure begins with four artistic processes: Creating, Performing, Responding, and Connecting. Instead of just assuming these are worthwhile things for music students to be doing, we begin with identifying broad priorities within each process. In the past, directors would place music in front of a band, lead rehearsals for a few months, and then give a concert.
While these directors surely taught music concepts along the way, there was usually no other reason than preparing for the concert, or learning something that was just part of the deal of being band. Students gained skills, and gave a performance, but when it was all said and done, there could easily have been very little lasting and transferrable knowledge and skills mastered. This is why so few high school music students continue to perform in ensembles after graduating. What they did in band or chorus or orchestra, except for those core players who go on with music, did not transfer or have relevance in their lives beyond membership in that particular high school ensemble. The UbD design and the National Core Arts Standards lead teachers and students deeper into learning, and redefine understanding from performing a task learned through repetition, being able to transfer the skills and knowledge to other experiences and tasks that are of interest to the student. Understanding in this context is making what is learned personally useful.
Our high school ensemble member now has a more meaningful and potentially fruitful goal. It addresses what truly matters, regardless of repertoire, ensemble, or particular experience. A statement that accomplishes this is called an enduring understanding. Here is an enduring understanding for our high school ensemble student from the standards: “To express their musical ideas, musicians analyze, evaluate, and refine their performance over time through openness to new ideas, persistence, and the application of appropriate criteria.” There is a lot to this statement, so let’s look at it closely. First, right out of the gate, a purpose for rehearsing is given. The purpose for rehearing is to successfully express musical ideas. This leads to inquiry as to what those musical ideas are, and what is to be expressed through them. From there, the director has a context for teaching all sorts of musical concepts, including phrasing, expressive elements, motif and theme, articulation, tempo, dynamics, and so forth.
This isn’t a case of the director telling students how to play, it is a case of students exploring and discovering these things. Look at the next phrase: musicians analyze, evaluate and refine their performance over time.” If we are teaching our students to be musicians, then because these are things musicians do, our students must learn to do them. The students must analyze, evaluate and refine their performance. They must analyze to learn what the musical ideas are, and what they are expressive of, and by finding the phrases, articulations, tempos, dynamics, and chords, and deciding just how each should be performed in order to effectively be expressive. They must evaluate their performance to know if they did what they intended; did they follow the plan that was meant to express musical ideas, and if not, where did they fall short, what needs to be done differently next time, and how will they do it more effectively. Then they need to refine their performance by practicing what went right, and practicing the corrected version of what went wrong. This is not a quick process, like erasing a wrong answer to a math problem and writing the correct on in its place; no this is a process that takes place over time. It is a process from which students will learn more than from giving the final performance.
Throughout, students are seeking to answer and experience the answer to the essential question, which is taken off the enduring understanding: “How do musicians interpret musical works?” If you ask high school music students this question, many will either not know what interpretation is, or they will say that it is following the director’s instructions. Conductors typically do most if not all the interpreting, leaving little or none of it for the students. Naturally, under this condition, the students never learn to interpret music; they never become capable of transferring interpreting skills to a new situation or experience. Once they learn how, they must be given practice doing it, first on familiar music, and then on a new piece. Interpreting is part of the rehearsing and refining process that the National Core Arts Standards are guiding us through.
The performance standard gives us greater detail, and also clues as to how we will assess student learning. “Identify and apply personally- developed criteria (such as demonstrating correct interpretation of notation, technical skill of performer, originality, emotional impact, variety , and interest) to rehearse, refine, and determine when the music is ready to perform.” Here we see that as part of this process, students, not the teacher, through the knowledge they have gained, will develop criteria against which they will evaluate their performance. After doing so repeatedly throughout the refining process, the students, not the director, will decide when the performance is ready to present to an audience. Students come to understand that interpretation, accuracy, expressiveness, and interest all must be brought to a high level and must be their concern while rehearsing before the performance can be considered ready to present.
All of what I have discussed here must be in order before an assessment can be made. That is, we must have an enduring understanding, essential question, and performance standard stated and analyzed. Once those are in place, and before we write a learning sequence or lesson plan, we must then decide what students will do to prove they have learned what we intended to teach them, and to prove that they can do what we intended they would be able to do as a result of our instruction. In my next post, I will discuss how to take what we have so far, and add a statement of how assessment will be done.