Demystifying Pre-assessment

Version 2Pre-assessment can be a confusing, even upsetting thing for teachers and students. Most of the confusion and upsetting arises from a sense of unfairness; how can students be tested on something we know they don’t know? When approached in this manner, pre-assessment stirs up anxiety for teachers and students alike. Considering this, the first step to succeeding with pre-assessment is to understand what it is and what it is not.

To begin, pre-assessment results are never graded. It is critical that students understand that you are giving them the pre-assessment to find out what they know and what they don’t know about a particular topic or unit of study. The results will have no bearing on their grades, and there will be no penalty for failing the pre-assessment. Now if we just left it at that, we risk leaving the impression that the pre-assessment isn’t really all that important, and causing students not to take it seriously or even try to do well. To avoid this, it is also critical to tell them that how they do on the pre-assessment will determine what and how you teach them going forward. If they do poorly on the pre-assessment, I will be convinced that I must teach the topic thoroughly. If they did poorly because they simply didn’t take it seriously, they will be quite bored by the unnecessary instruction they will be receiving until the next assessment. Classes will be the most enjoyable and interesting if I collect accurate information on where they are with the topic, so my instruction can be appropriate to their learning needs.

Then next thing to consider about pre-assessments, is that we should not try to make these assessments “user friendly” to avoid creating test anxiety. The explanation I just discussed should alleviate most if not all test anxiety. If we populate our pre-assessment with items that we think the students already know in order to comfort students, then we are ensuring that the results will be skewed and of limited value. We will either conclude that students are more proficient than they really are, and so plan instruction that is too advanced, or, if we interpret their success on easy questions too broadly, we will be prone to avoid teaching things that they need as foundations or review in order to succeed later in the unit. For both of these reasons, the pre-assessment must be the same as the post-assessment. The whole idea is to compare how students do on two takings of the same test; one given before instruction, one given after. That is how we can determine if our instruction has been effective. If the results on both takings is statistically the same, then our instruction has not improved their proficiency; they know no more than before we taught them. If, on the other hand, they score statistically higher after instruction, then we know that they have increased their proficiency as a result of our instruction, which is what we are after. If the pre-assessment is different from the post-assessment, we have no way of knowing if the difference is due to instruction or the difference in the test. That is why the pre-assessment and post-assessment must be the same test.

Pre-assessments are also a great tool for setting student learning objectives (SLO). Not every student will turn in identical results on the pre-assessment. Items answered correctly or incorrectly will vary from student to student, as will overall scores. Each individual pre-assessment will identify in items answered incorrectly areas in which that student needs further instruction, and in items answered correctly areas in which the teacher-and-student4student is ready to move on, take on at a higher level of challenge, or mentor other students who still need more instruction. Then, when the teacher is stating how student growth will be measured, one approach can be to state it in terms of a percentage of post-assessment items that will be answered correctly that were answered incorrectly on the pre-assessment. Here again, the difficulty of assessment items is important to get right. If the pre-assessment is too easy, students will scores will be high before they have received any instruction, and the possibility of showing growth on the post-assessment will be small. Similarly, if the pre-assessment is too difficult, and instruction cannot overcome the difficulty, students will score poorly on both assessments, and again growth will be minimal. The pre-assessment/post-assessment must reflect on the one hand the expectation of rigorous instruction and on the other hand realistic learning objectives that will guide and motivate students to learn without discouraging them with excessive challenge or boring them with insufficient challenge.

At this point, many will want to see an example of a pre-assessment. Let us assume that we want to assess 5th grade students on sight singing. We have taught these students since they were in kindergarten, so we have previous assessments and experience to give us an idea of their proficiency that will enable us to create an appropriate assessment. The students have sung with fixed do solfege and Gordon rhythm syllables, and have read medium easy songs using both. With these students in mind, an assessment might have these items. First, students are presented with several pitches on a standard musical staff. Students are asked to write the correct fixed do solfege syllable under each note, and then to sing one of the items using fixed do solfege. The teacher selects which item each student sings, and the same item is never given to two consecutive students so that echoing cannot occur. The same sequence is then repeated with rhythms. Students are presented with several rhythms on a standard musical staff. They are asked to write the correct Gordon rhythm syllable under each note, and then to sing one of the items using Gordon rhythm syllables. The teacher selects which item each student sings, and the same item is never given to two consecutive students so that echoing cannot occur. Third, students are presented with four short melodies, perhaps four measures each. These melodies contain only the pitches and rhythms that were included in the previous items. The teacher selects one of the melodies for each student to sing, and the same melody is never sung by two consecutive students. The teacher scores on a rubric each student performance and each student written response. The completed rubric is attached to each student’s paper, and all scores are recorded on a spreadsheet.

Once such an assessment is given, instruction proceeds according to the results. Students may need more instruction on rhythm, pitch, or in combining the two in a melody. Instruction proceeds with the same rhythms and pitches used in the assessment. This is not to say that only sight singing is taught in music class, but that what is taught in music class will include sight singing material that uses the same rhythms and pitches. After an appropriate interval of time, the teacher gives the same assessment again, and then again enters the results on the spreadsheet that was started after the pre-assessment. Subsequent results from other administrations of the assessment are also entered on the spreadsheet. Other pre-assessments/post-assessments can and should also be given on other topics that are covered in music class, including performing on instruments, performing with voice, responses to listening including reflections, analyses and evaluations, and improvising/composing. In each case, the student is asked to do what they will be asked to do after instruction before that instruction is given, and then given the same assessment following the instruction.

Some of these assessment will be shorter and/or more informal, because we cannot give comprehensive assessments on everything we do for lack of time. Informal assessments can be as simple as having each student sing one tonal pattern from notation or after you have sung it and marking down a number representing the accuracy that one pattern was sung. Other assessments will appear more like routine classwork, such as filling out a listening guide while listening to a musical work, or filling out an evaluation scale on a popular song. The important thing is that students have the opportunity to perform the same task repeatedly over time so that results can be compared and evidence of growth can be seen and documented.



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