Assessing Student Learning: How To Get At What Really Matters

Version 2Yesterday, I met with my professional learning community (PLC) to write an assessment for an instructional unit we had been working on. The unit is for 3rd grade and is a responding to music unit. We wanted to assess students in the areas of selecting and interpreting music to which they listen. We made our first attempt at this last month.  We wrote a prompt for the 3rd graders to respond to in writing. Taken from the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS), for interpreting, we wanted them to be able to explain and demonstrate the elements of music, identify musical elements in a musical work, find clues as to the composer’s expressive intent in the way musical elements are used, and to conclude what the expressive intent is from the clues. Revisiting our work from a month ago, we all said at once, “what were we thinking?” We realized this prompt is too difficult for third graders, but we still wanted to assess the students at explaining how musical elements were used, and their relationship to the composer’s intent. But if we were going to do this, we had to find another way; one that was age appropriate. What we  had so far would be a usable assessment for older students, but we needed another way to assess the same things for our third graders. We had to find a way to make something that involved critical thinking accessible to children too young to effectively think abstractly as middle school students can.

We began to break what we were assessing down into a series of narrowly targeted questions in the hopes of arriving at the data we were looking for, but one step a time. First, we wanted students to show us that they knew what the musical elements were, but we didn’t want them to just memorize a definition that might or might not be understood, nor did we want to open endedly ask them for their own definition. We used a format we found in the 2nd grade model cornerstone assessment for responding to music. We gave choices in words and decided to ask the children to circle the correct answer. Because we have many English language learners in our schools, we also decided to accompany the word choices with pictures. The music that the students will respond to is “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. With this in mind, our first question was,

  1. Which of these is an example of: (circle the correct answer)

(Add pictures for each choice)

    1. Tempo                 soft                 fast
    1. Dynamics           clarinet          loud
    1. Articulation       legato             crescendo
    1. Timbre                 beat                bright
    1. Rhythm               ta ti-ti           re
    1. Beat                      pulse              drum
    1. Pitch                    ti-ti ta            mi

This question, as with the others I will present, are still a draft, so the exact terms may change, and the pictures for soft, fast, clarinet, loud, and so forth have not yet been added.

The second question is similar in design:

  1. This music is:
    1. Fast                                 slow
    2. Loud                                soft
    3. Legato                             staccato
    4. Dark                                bright
    5. Moving a lot                  barely moving at all
    6. Often high in pitch     often low in pitch

From there, we entered into the area of the composer’s expressive intent. Why did Tchaikovsky write this music (purpose), what was he trying to express or represent (intent) and how did he use those musical elements to accomplish his purpose and achieve his intent? We have not told the children about the ballet story, or even the descriptive title of the selection. Without giving them this information, we now ask them,

What picture do you imagine from hearing this music? Describe this picture in detail.

Here the children are being asked to describe with their words in writing. We could also accept a detailed drawing if using language was a problem. As the child imagines a picture, he or she begins to form an idea of what Tchaikovsky’s intent might have been. 

Because of the prominent use of the celesta, we decided to have the children respond to the musical element of timbre, so we ask, “How was timbre used to make the music sound like your picture?” Again, the children must write their answer using words. There really is no iconic alternate way to answer this question, so for those with language challenges, we might accept a recorded oral response. 

Finally, we want the children to listen for other clues as to what the purpose or intent might be, so we lastly invite them to name other musical elements and explain how the composer used each to express or represent what he wanted. To this end, we ask them, “what other musical elements also help to make the music sound like this l picture?  Give a reason for each musical element you name.  

For selecting, we faced the challenge of getting students to think about more than whether or not they like a song, or give more detailed reasons for their selection than that they like the beat or the artist. We wanted to prompt them to think about elements of music and expressive intent, and about their own interests, experiences, and knowledge.  As with interpreting, our first attempt relied on an open ended question asking them to give their selection, and support their choice by making connections with interests, experiences, purposes or contexts. We again decided to replace that approach with one that was more focused, and would lead the students to consider the things we wanted them thinking about and learning.

We chose three musical works from which the students would make their selection for the assessment. These were the opening of Symphony no. 5 by Beethoven, The Viennese Musical Clock by Kodaly, and Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov. The students would respond to each musical work by answering six questions:

  1. What caught my attention in this music was __________________. It caught my attention because ________________________________________________.
  2. In this music I am curious about _____________________________________.
  3. I found this music interesting because ________________________________.
  4. What does this music remind you of?
  5. What could you teach the class about this music?
  6. Why do you think the composer wrote this music?

Once the students had collected their answers for all three works, they would answer one final question: Based on your answers, choose one that you would like to hear again. Write the title of the music you selected here. __________________________

With the first six questions, we think we will draw out how the students’ interests, experience, and knowledge connected them to the music. Questions 1 – 3 target interests, question 4 targets experience, question 5 targets knowledge, and question 6 targets purpose and context. Then we ask students to consider all of these responses, and to base their selection of one of these musical works on the connections they have become aware of through answering the questions. If you like this assessment, feel free to use it in your own classes. If you do this, please let me know how it goes, and send me feedback on changes that would make it better. We will be doing the same thing here.


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