Why Is Assessment Important in Music Ensembles?

Why Is Assessment Important in Music Ensembles?

For better or worse, teachers spend a lot of time measuring students.  This measurement is necessary to ensure that effective teaching and learning are happening in each classroom. Ultimately, assessment is about making sure that students meet instructional standards. Testing for testing’s sake isn’t productive. Instead, good assessment should ensure that student learning is measured in a way that helps both students and teachers improve.

This is why teachers are encouraged to write lesson plans that focus on limited, clearly defined learning objectives, each of which clearly relates to a standard. Having clear, actionable goals in each lesson plan means that progress toward those goals can be clearly measured. In other words, it’s easier to build truly productive, useful assessments when your class has a clear objective.

Consider standards, lesson plans, and assessments in the context of this analogy: standards represent a destination. The lesson plan, then, is the map that shows how the class will arrive at their destination. Assessments are your GPS. You can know exactly where you’re going and how to get there, but where are you right now? How will you know if you’re behind schedule, if you’ve taken a wrong turn, or if every student has arrived with you at the destination? Assessments provide that valuable information.

You can go deep with this analogy. Heading to a destination you haven’t visited before? I bet you check your GPS more often. Similarly, when you’re teaching to a standard that’s new, you’ll want to include more frequent, quick assessments to be sure everything is on track. The analogy also explains why assessments should be done in moderationif you spend all your time pulled over looking at your GPS, you won’t ever make progress toward your destination.

It may sound like more work, but designing quality assessments can actually help make it easier to teach to standards. When you build assessments that do more than take a snapshot of student progress, you can show parents, administrators, and students how each student is progressing and what changes you’re making to your own teaching to help. In this article, we’ll discuss how to successfully address standards using assessments.

Measuring Student Progress

The most basic job of assessment is to measure student progress. Traditionally, progress can be measured in two ways: against a goal, or as improvement from a previously measured spot. Both of these measurements can be done in the context of standards.

Obviously, when standards are the end goal of your teaching, tying standards to your assessments is a simple taskyou’re measuring how well students accomplished the goal (of meeting or exceeding those standards). However, this connection between standards and assessments is only as strong as the assessments themselves. Standardized tests are designed to measure how well students meet standards, and most teachers aren’t huge fans of standardized tests.

One reason teachers aren’t big fans of giant bubble sheets is that they’re time consuming for students. In a perfect classroom, students would spend more time learning and less time taking tests. So design assessment techniques that take less class time! You’ll measure how well your students are meeting standards without taking time away from your teaching. Some ways to have more efficient assessments include:

  • Doing assessments at home (using cloud-based technology to have your students send in recordings, for example)
  • Assessing groups of students at once (perhaps in a sectional)
  • Creating activities that become their own assessments (student compositions demonstrating mastery of music notation concepts)

Standards actually empower teachers to assess without an exam. As long as you can demonstrate how well students are meeting standards, you can combine assessment with other learning activities and have the best of both worlds.

Earlier we also mentioned measuring student progress as “an improvement from a previously measured spot.” Ensemble directors do this all the time. Did the repertoire for the concert sound better today than it did yesterday? This can be a tempting strategy. One reason is that it’s easier to come up with learning objectives and lesson plans that connect this approach to those state standards that represent your destination. Need to address a standard about exposing students to art from a variety of world cultures? Program some world music on your concert and you can go back to rehearsal as usual.

However, these assessments are hard to track. Sure, you played some world music, but did the students really understand how the music of a different culture was changed by that culture’s history and tradition? Instead, dig deeper into the standards. Ask students “how” questions so that they take ownership of their own learningand design assessments that get at the meat of the standard. These assessments don’t have to stop the ensemble from practicing technical skills on instruments, either. If you’ve programmed a West African piece on your choir concert to satisfy a standard about world culture, have students compose and sing culturally accurate African rhythms. You can assess how well students truly understand this important element of world music.

Measuring Your Progress

Using standards as the basis for assessment also provides you, the teacher, valuable feedback. Assessments will tell you if students met the standard and hit their learning target, but what happens if students fell short? You need to ask yourself why. If you went a week without any assessments, you won’t know where you took a wrong turn. You may find yourself going back and reteaching concepts that students understand, rather than spending more time on the concept that proved difficult.

Formative assessment is the key to making sure that you’re assessing your teaching. Quick, simple checks for understanding that take place more often during the lesson show you when you’ve lost students.

In an ensemble rehearsal, these checks for understanding often happen automaticallydirectors give feedback as necessary directly from the podium. Expanding this feedback to home practice will give students feedback faster, but having a sense of what home practice sounds like also helps show you which learning objectives need more work and which standards students have already met.

Teaching Students to Measure Progress

What’s better than doing assessments yourself? Having the students do them for you!


Teaching students to self-assess (and assess their peers) helps them internalize concepts. Rather than needing to regurgitate information to demonstrate their own understanding, students will have to master the material such that they can determine how well other people understand it.

In addition to encouraging a deeper level of mastery in students, peer assessment is another way to improve the efficiency of your assessment process. Rather than taking class time to listen to every student or every section perform a passage, have students play for a partner. Yes, this requires good classroom management, but it gets everyone playing and combines assessment with practice.

Finally, implementing peer and self-assessment empowers students. Designing activities where students evaluate the performance of others brings a shared accountability to your ensemble. Activities that ask students to evaluate themselves also teach accountabilityarguably a more powerful form of accountability. There are also tangible benefits for your ensemble. When students are constantly listening to the music they make, your ensemble is practicing crucial ear training skills and doing an assessment at the same time.

How do you tie these self-assessments to standards? It’s easier than you think. The National Core Arts Standards actually include self-assessment. Even when not explicitly prescribed, you can connect self and peer assessment to standards simply by asking students if they’ve arrived at their destination (the standard). Of course, you’ll need to make sure that students clearly understand where they were trying to go. Setting clear, actionable goals on your lesson planand framing the lesson so that students understand those goals at the beginning of classmeans they can successfully assess how well they met those goals at the end of class.

Start Making Progress

Include assessments on your next lesson plan using our free planning template. We even set aside room to include a clear, standards-based learning objective, so you know what you’re assessing.

Start your lesson planning now with this free downloadable lesson plan template.

Ryan Sargent is MakeMusic’s social media manager, an active jazz and funk trombonist, and an affiliate faculty member at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. A graduate of Baylor University, Ryan has taught middle school band and low brass lessons in Texas and Colorado. In addition to his teaching, performing, and social media managing, Ryan serves as vice president for the non-profit Technology Institute for Music Educators.

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