All assessments, no matter when they are given, are designed with one purpose in mind, and that is to document what the students taking the assessment know and don’t know. With this knowledge in hand, a teacher can design leaning, individualize instruction, and teach to a classes overall needs. Beginning of the year assessment offer some unique challenges. First, they can be very unsettling and even upsetting to students, because they are being tested before they have been taught anything. This seems pointless to them, and can create a good deal of stress. It is one thing for a student to struggle with a test that is on something they know they have learned, and quite another to be tested on something they know for certain they have not been taught. For this reason, it is important for teachers to talk to their classes about the assessment before giving it. Explain that this test will only be used to let you, the teacher, know what needs to be taught, and what doesn’t need to be taught. For this reason, it is important that everyone do their best, so that they do not give the impression they need instruction on something they’re actually quite proficient at, which instruction would surely bore the class. That said, also assure the students that this test will not count toward their grade.
Now I will discuss what should be included in a beginning of the year assessment. It should not be a test of material they learned last year, but rather it should be a test of material you will be teaching them in the coming unit, semester, year, or what have you. This is crucial, because after you have taught that material, you will give the same assessment and compare the results between the first and second administering. This will show what the students have learned, and the growth they have made. In order to make a good beginning of the year assessment, you must have a concrete plan of what you will be teaching, and build your assessment around that. Because you will use your beginning of the year assessment as a pre test, you must be sure to teach everything that was in the test, so that when the students take the test again, it will provide accurate data on what they have learned. Unless you need to prepare students to physically take the pre-test, you should not do any teaching before giving the assessment.
For example, suppose you wanted to give a singing assessment. You are going to establish a tonality, then have the students sing a short song, one at a time. You will assess starting pitch, use of head voice, steady beat, rhythm, and maintaining tonal center. Every student will sing the same song, and none of the students knows the song. In this case, you would need to prep the students by teaching them the song. This would not effect the assessment, because you are assessing matters that can only be demonstrated if they know the song well enough to sing it alone. If, on the other hand, you are going to assess interpreting expressive markings in music, by having them sight read a melody with dynamics, articulations and tempo changes marked, and they already were able to play or sing the melody from the notation you give them, then no preparation is needed. You would simply listen to each performance, and assess the presence or absence and quality of the expressive elements. It only matters that the students are able to take the assessment with little or no preparation.
It is also important that the teacher not help the student who is having difficulty with the test. If the assessment has been properly explained as I discussed above, a student will not be bothered if they are able to answer few or even none of the test items. If the teacher helps the student with the test, it is no longer an accurate assessment of what the students knows and needs to learn. In addition, if your teacher evaluation instrument requires that you report assessment data and growth data, greater growth will be shown with a greater positive difference between pre- and post-assessment.
Because your beginning of the year assessment will almost certainly not assess everything you plan to teach for the first semester or quarter, you may need to keep reminding yourself to keep the assessment items frequently present in your lesson plans throughout the term. The only way students are going to do significantly better on subsequent administerings of the assessment is if you have provided the instruction they need to do so. In the case of the singing assessment example above, I like to start my classes with tonal or rhythm patterns which the class learns together and then the students perform one at a time. Gordon’s tonal and rhythm register books or Feirabend’s Conversational Solfege are both excellent resources for doing this. Including these activities in every class assures that they are practicing the skills and concepts they will need to improve their performance on the assessment, and they don’t overtake my instructional time as they can be accomplished in less than 10 minutes.
Beginning of the year assessments should include the most universal and important material from your curriculum. Because this material will be re-assessed periodically throughout the school year, what you are assessing needs to be important enough to warrant revisiting on a regular basis. You would not want to use a worksheet or activity you plan to use for 1 or 2 classes and then move on as a beginning of the year assessment. If you did, then you would be committed to continuing to teach to that worksheet even though what it covers doesn’t not warrant that much attention. Your beginning of the year assessment is going to be given at least two more times–once around mid-year, and again at the end of the year, so that growth over the entire year can be documented. Mote frequent assessments are desirable although not always practical.
Although I have found that not all Model Cornerstone Assessments can be used successfully as beginning of the year, mid-year, and end of the year assessments, there are a few that I used with good success. These included the 2nd grade General Music Creating task, and, as part of my Little Kids Rock program, the 8th grade General Music Performing task. Keep in mind that these assessment tasks can be involved and very time consuming, so you may want to select only part of the task described and just use that portion for your assessment, or you may choose to break the task down into two or three smaller assessments, and use only one of them as your three recurring assessments. The advantage of using the Model Cornerstone Assessments is that they are highly substantive and have been piloted by music teachers before being released, so you can be confident that they are good tools for you to use.
Let me know what you’re doing to plan for the upcoming school year, and what I can write on that will be of help. I may also be able to visit your district as a consultant. You can also contact me using the contact page.