As the end of the quarter looms near, I’m checking my grade book to make sure that I’m ready to enter report card grades. Have I completed all of the assessments that I need this term? Do those assessments really show what my students have learned? Music teachers and ensemble directors are great at seamless formative assessments. We listen to our students perform, instantly identify spots that need work, and immediately work to fix those problem areas. Scored assessments, on the other hand, can be more difficult in a music classroom. With limited time, large class sizes, and subject matter that is complex and often without a right or wrong answer, how can we translate the learning that we see into meaningful grades?
The first step is to determine what you will assess. For assessment scores to truly reflect the learning that has been taking place in the music classroom, they should align with the learning goals in daily lesson plans. The state and national standards are great guides and a good starting point when determining what your learning goals will be. However, it’s important to assess what the students have actually been learning; if some standards haven’t been taught in a grading period, there’s no reason to assess students on those standards until they have been covered.
The more seamlessly that assessments can be integrated into normal routine, the better. If music class is typically fast-paced and full of music making and activities, expecting students to sit quietly and do a written test might not go over well. An assessment should never kill students’ enthusiasm for music. My way of coping with this is to do regular, short assessments. Over time, I can collect a variety of information, I can also see student progress, and students don’t panic about assessments because they’re used to them.
Performance assessments and non-performance assessments can both be effective measures of student learning in a music class. Students can demonstrate their grasp of skills through authentic music-making in a performance assessment. Non-performance assessments can show how well students are able to articulate their understanding of concepts.
- Solo Time: I’ll have each of my students perform a very short melody or rhythm as a solo. Usually, I’ll do this in a call-and-response format, alternating between me and individual students, to keep the momentum going. This works for assessing singing or playing ability as well as improvisation skills.
- Today’s Instrumentalists: In my younger grades, I choose a handful of students each day to perform a specified accompaniment (e.g. steady beat, ostinato, etc.) with a piece that they all know well. When only a few students are playing instruments, I’m able to hear them well enough to assess their playing while the rest of the class is also participating. And the students are always excited to find out who will get to play each day!
- Self-Assessment: Knowing how to self-assess is an essential skill for any musician. Teaching students assessment criteria and how to identify levels of mastery can focus their learning and teach an important musicianship skill while also helping the grading process.
- Peer Assessment: Peer assessment has the benefits of self-assessment along with the added perks of helping students to become more comfortable performing for each other, providing opportunities to give and apply constructive criticism, and providing a system of checks and balances. I like to use peer assessments during my recorder units, in which students work independently at their own pace. I have students do short performance assessments with three of their peers, and I do occasional check-in assessments with the students. When students have a clear understanding of the expectations of the assessment, they are able to give accurate and reliable scores and feedback.
- Written Assessments: Although most students groan at the mention of written assignments, with a little creativity, they can be made interesting, full of variety, and even fun. However, because students tend to have negative associations with this type of assessment, use them with purpose. There are a variety of more engaging ways ask students multiple choice questions, but writing on a worksheet might be the only way to see how students can write notes on a staff, draw musical symbols, or compose.
- Assessment Technology: There’s an ever-growing variety of education technology that can be used for effective and engaging assessments. Figure out what you have access to, and what you have time to use. Even if your school has a classroom set of iPads, it might not be worth the time that would be needed to pass them out, walk students through the steps of operating an app, and collecting them again. I recently started using Plickers — a simple tool that requires only one iPad and a class set of scannable cards. It’s been working well and students are always interested in anything involving technology.
Choosing how to assess student learning and how to translate that information into a grade is a complex decision. How formative and summative assessments are used, whether using technology or not, and whether assessing all of the standards each grading period or focusing only on a few is a choice that each teacher makes to best suit their individual situations. Any assessment that provides meaningful information about student learning to you, your students, and students’ parents, while allowing students to continue engaging in music uninterrupted in your classroom is a good assessment.