Assessing Musical Performance

Assessment: Assessing Musical Performance

As more emphasis has been placed on student performance and teacher accountability, assessment has become increasingly important to music educators across the country. The use of valid measurement tools and assessment models are viewed as an integral part of the teaching process.

Why Is Assessment Important?

Assessment is important to gauge student progress, to provide information and motivation for learning, and to identify areas where improvements are needed. As you become more effective in your assessment of students, the quality of the information that you receive will increase. This information can be used to objectively give students a grade but also to make informed decisions about the types of learning experiences your students will have.

Assessment Should Be Useful, Targeted, and Sustainable

When choosing what to assess it is important to select something that really matters.

What are your students weakest at? If your students are already great at performing all their scales, developing an assessment to test their mastery of scales would not be very informative. In addition, the assessments must measure what you really want to know. If your goal is, in fact, to measure students’ performance on their scales, having them notate their scales would not be appropriate.

Assessment should be targeted. It is impossible to assess everything. Assess only a few learning outcomes that are most important. It is better to assess a small number of outcomes well and make improvements rather than to assess too much and change nothing. If what you are most interested in is improving articulation, then design a quality measure to assess that well rather than assessing a lot of different things. Use the data you receive to truly improve that one area.

For assessment to be truly effective it needs to be ongoing. Assessment should be sustainable. It should occur regularly and be embedded into class activities. Constant feedback provides teachers and students with information that they can use to make improvements. It provides clarity to what should be focused on and accomplished. Doing an assessment only once strips it of its effectiveness as an instructional tool.

Determining What to Teach

The first important step in assessment is to decide what is to be taught. This includes setting long and short-term goals, selecting repertoire to meet those goals, and developing specific learning objectives for each piece.

The learning objectives state what the students will be able to do by the end of a set time. The clearer the learning objectives and the more precise the directions are on what is to be accomplished, the higher the achievement rate.

Finally, teachers must determine the criterion or degree to which the student must achieve to meet satisfactory attainment of the objective. Sources for developing learning objectives include the 2014 Music Standards and state and district standards and curricula. Once the specifics of what is to be taught are known, it is much easier to determine the most appropriate method of assessing the learning.

Many teachers lack experience with proven assessment models used in music classrooms.

The following outlines three stages to assessment:

  1. Where do students begin? (diagnostic assessment),
  2. What was their educational experience like? (formative assessment), and
  3. Where do students end up? (summative assessment).

Diagnostic Assessment

Diagnostic assessment establishes a baseline to which future learning is compared. Through these assessments, teachers gain insight into where students begin, their prior knowledge, and their interests. It is easy to overestimate what students know. Having this information allows teachers to establish appropriate goals and learning objectives. Diagnostic assessment is especially helpful in getting to know students who newly enter the school.

Measurement tools most appropriate to this stage of assessment are checklists and rating scales. Checklists assess whether or not a student is able to complete a task. Rating scales have the ability to measure how well the student completes a task.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment provides the student and teacher with continuous feedback on learning as it occurs. This information is valuable as it allows the teacher to maintain, modify, or remediate learning to progress toward the learning objectives.

Formative assessment is formal or informal and guides the teaching and learning process. It can also be useful to question students about the strategies that students are employing outside of the classroom such as the kinds of pedagogies, supportive practices, and assignments to which they are engaging.

Measures of musical performance most appropriate to formative assessment are rubrics. Rubrics divide a task into constituent parts, offer descriptions of the performance levels for each part, and provide a means for authentic assessment.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessment occurs at the conclusion of the learning process to evaluate student achievement on the learning objectives. It summarizes one point in time. Data obtained from summative assessment is often used to assign grades and to develop future goals and learning objectives.

You can also use this data to measure learning gains, determine where improvements can be made, and to look for trends. Assessment tools that work well for the summative assessment of musical performance are again checklists and rating scales.


Rubrics are an often-used measurement tool to measure musical performance. A rubric is a set of scoring criteria used to measure a student’s performance on assigned tasks. Rubrics are most useful as a means of providing the student with information about their strengths and weaknesses in relation to the learning objectives.

When creating rubrics use the following steps:

  1. Identify the learning objective to be tested.
  2. Define the task or activity.
  3. Break the task into component parts.
  4. Identify at least four or five levels of proficiency for each component.
  5. Clearly define the standard for each level of proficiency using language that students are able to understand so they know what they did well and what they need to improve.
  6. Assign a numerical value for each level.
  7. Indicate the student’s total score.
  8. Provide criteria for interpreting the final score in a way that enables students to understand their overall level of achievement.

At the conclusion of the assessment return the completed rubrics to the students in a timely manner so that they may use the information to plan and direct their continued learning and progress. The appendix contains a sample rubric and rating scale that were created using these steps.

Rubrics can be a great teaching tool. Pass out the rubrics to students, explore with students the various achievement levels and what is expected to become proficient at each level, and allow the students to use the rubrics to assess their own performance and that of others.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Any type of assessment must address the great diversity of instructional settings that exist in our classrooms. These are some questions you can ask yourself as you design assessments to fit your classrooms.

  1. What class or program are you creating an assessment plan for?
  2. What are the one or two learning objectives on which you are focusing?
  3. Why have you selected these learning objectives? Does this plan address the least effective aspect of student performance?
  4. How will you gauge where your students start on these learning goals?
  5. How will you gauge elements of students’ educational experience in your program that may influence the extent to which they are achieving these learning outcomes?
  6. What assignment, rubric, or other means will you use to evaluate students’ progress on these learning objectives?
  7. List any challenges you anticipate in implementing this plan. How will you address these challenges?


Assessment can facilitate many important objectives, including:

  • Increasing the sense of community among music teachers to facilitate discussions of best practices,
  • Developing models and assessment tools that music teachers can use and adapt in their classrooms, and
  • Continuing to provide professional development and workshops to address classroom assessment, especially in the area of collecting student growth data.

Technology and other means also need to be explored to help speed the time it takes to assess students. A great example of this technology is SmartMusic. SmartMusic allows students to practice and record their music outside of the classroom and submit assignments to the teacher saving valuable class time. It also is able to provide students immediate feedback to use in their practice.

Classroom assessment is not an add-on and should be part of a consistently applied and ongoing assessment cycle. This is part of a teacher’s professional responsibilities. Even though assessing students may seem, at times, like a chore and something additional to our already busy lives, it serves a valuable purpose in the education of our students. It allows students to improve on an individual level and provides motivation to become better musicians. Be committed to long-term improvement and talk with colleagues to develop and build upon best practices in classroom assessment.

Dr. Peter J. Hamlin is an assistant professor of music and director of the music education program at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Dr. Hamlin received his Ph.D. in Music Education from the University of Miami. He taught high school band in Florida for nine years. He has also directed various school and church choirs and works to promote greater music literacy among choral groups. Dr. Hamlin maintains a private clarinet studio and is active as a performer. His research interests include the study of deliberate practice, self-regulation, and the development of expertise. A second research interest area is classroom assessment.

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