Assessment Is A Good Thing–Even For Music Teachers

Version 2There is a feeling among many music teachers, especially at this time of year when student progress must be documented, that assessment in music is a necessary evil, required by mandated teacher evaluation and/or school districts. While assessment is required by these authorities, it should not be handled merely as nuisance paperwork, because there is much value in music assessment done right. Before I go further, and lest you think I am enthralled with doing assessment, let me assure you I struggle with getting it done, and do not like the time it takes out of what I would otherwise be doing with my students.

That being said, since I began doing formal assessments, I have come to realize how much I was missing when my assessment strategy consisted of “informal” assessments. I would have students play or sing, and I would score them on a rubric of performance items such as tone, technique, and expression. There are two problems with this kind of assessment. First, it only assesses the product, not the knowledge or skill needed to produce the product. For example, a score for tone does not instruct me on what that student needs to be taught to improve tone, and it does not instruct the student on what to practice in order to improve tone. This type of assessment doesn’t break tone down into the set of skills needed to produce excellent tone on an instrument or voice. I need to know what the student needs to do in order to produce an excellent tone, and that information must come out of my assessment of tone.

The second problem with this kind of assessment is that it does not produce any student work that documents student growth. Rubric scores are not student work, anymore than the comments a Language Arts teacher writes on an essay are student work. It is the essay, not the comments that constitute the student work. In our case, it is the student’s performance that is the student work, not the rubric score. Obviously, a musical performance cannot be documented as a piece of written work, but it can be documented as an audio or video recording. Teachers who have a music room with a practice room or office attached can set up a recording device in that practice room or office. Students go into the room one at a time out of your music class and record themselves. They are assigned a number ahead of time which is recorded in your class roster. When the student goes in, they write down their number on a numbered list, so that you have a record of the order in which the students recorded themselves. Then, you can listen to the recorded performances and assess each one without knowing whose performance you are listening to, and then match up the numbers with names afterwards.

If you do not have a practice room or office, but just a single space, there are other ways to manage making recordings. One is to make the solo performances a concert for the class, with each student performing for the class while being recorded. A variation of this is to give students evaluation sheets which they must fill out on each performance. They are graded based on how close their evaluation comes to yours. For classes where students are not comfortable performing alone for their peers, the class can be given seat work to do quietly while you call one student at a time to a location in the room where you are recording them. You can still use the numbering system so that your evaluations will remain anonymous until after you have scored everyone.

To make these recorded assessments worth doing, they must target specific competencies. For example, for a second grade singing assessment, the rubric might include starting on the right pitch, maintaining the tonal center, keeping a steady beat, using a head voice throughout, and singing rhythms correctly. Notice that i-get-itgeneral criteria such as “sings with good tone” are avoided, because they do not provide useful data to improve instruction and learning. Whatever you are assessing, you must break it down into specific competencies that become clearly defined targets for the student to hit during the course of the performance. The more targets that are hit, the better the overall performance will be. You will still get a total score, but that score will be the sum of meaningful data that the student can use to learn and improve, and that you can use to inform future instruction.

There is no getting around the fact that this kind of assessment is time consuming. Because of this, I plan several classes to complete each assessment like this that I do. I typically do one-third of a class per class meeting. Meeting my classes once per week as I do, each assessment takes 3-4 weeks to complete, so if an assessment is due in June, I start it at the beginning of May. Because of the time involved, I do three of this type of assessment per year; one at the beginning of the year to set a benchmark, one a mid-year to check progress, and one at the end of the year to document student growth. This is in conformance with mandated teacher evaluation protocol.

I still do smaller assessments throughout the year. These are critical so that there are no surprises when the major assessments come around. I have students sing song fragments every class. I go around with a copy of my seating chart and jot down a rubric score for one or two competencies. Most often I am listening for accurate pitch or rhythm and use of head voice. The child sings four beats, I write down a number, then I move on to someone else. I go randomly around the room so that the children never know who will be called on next. This is not stressful for them. I make it low key and just a part of our normal routine, and they enjoy it. In fact, I think it helps develop a love of singing. They are eager to sing for me, to show me what they can do. I praise excellent performances, and say thank you for less successful ones. No negative criticism is given during this time. I usually don’t share scores with students either. I use the scores to determine what I ask particular students to do during that and future classes. If a student is struggling to sing in head voice, I may give him or her a relatively high-pitched vocal ostinato, or place him or her into a small group of singers who have really good head voices, so that the one student will begin imitating them. If I do this kind of assessment regularly, and get around to all of the elements that will be in the mid-year and final assessment, then I will have prepared my students for those major assessments well. And these little assessments take very little time, and are just part of what I do in my general music classes.

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