From Theory to Practice: Assessment Strategies in General Music

From Theory to Practice: Assessment Strategies in General Music

This post will focus on my research involving assessment strategies in elementary general music classes. Don’t panic. You do not have to be an elementary music teacher, a researcher, or even a musician to find some useful information. After nearly 20 years in the music classroom (band, vocal, and general), I decided to pursue a doctorate degree in music education. Through this degree, I have had the opportunity to conduct research that interests me because it investigates what so many practicing music teachers are doing: assessment! Assessments can be both a blessing and a curse, but in this article I will share strategies that other music educators have used to make assessment a positive force in their classrooms.

This particular study took me into the classrooms of four incredibly gifted music teachers to learn their thoughts about the role of assessments, its importance within their curriculum, and the strategies they use to make assessment beneficial. Music teachers, in particular, are often in a position to decide what times of musical skills and knowledge should be assessed. Of course, we teach to state and national standards, but personal beliefs about curriculum and assessment play an important role in the way assessments take place in the music classroom.

The Research

My goal was to explore strategies that bridge the divide between theory and practice. Too often, assessments make perfect sense in theory, only to not work so well in a real-life classroom setting. By interviewing music teachers, I was able to uncover places where theory and practice can work together.

I began with the following questions:

  • How do general music teachers perceive assessment?
  • How do general music teachers merge their beliefs about assessment with their classroom practices?

Because these are nuanced, complex questions, I needed to spend significant time understanding exactly how teachers navigate the world of assessment. Using accepted practices in educational research, I found several diverse classrooms so that my research would be as helpful as possible to music educators around the country.

I met with teachers for surveys, interviews, and discussions over a period of four months.

The Results

Several common themes emerged in this study that help to explain why teachers think about assessment the way we do. In general, the teachers I worked with agreed that formative assessment strategies are a necessary and important part of teaching. However, when a “culture of testing” imposed summative assessments, teachers got frustrated trying to find a balance.

Designing and implementing assessments that provide authentic and valid results is difficult – but worth it. Good assessments help teachers better understand students’ musical skills, prioritize instructional time, and communicate the importance of music education. Giving teachers flexibility in how they design assessments helps empower them to build assessments that are useful. A trial and error approach helps teachers ensure that the assessments work “in the trenches.”

One participant stated, “I didn’t even learn how to assess until I started to teach. Most of my background is performance. When I got my first job it was experimental” (Cecelia, focus group, November 10, 2016). However, “musicians are trained to make judgments.” (Ella, interview, November 2, 2016) and these participants were able to use their training and their judgment to merge their beliefs into their practice.

Allowing teachers to build and use multiple forms of assessment was even more important.“If they can’t answer it on a multiple choice, they can pick up the recorder and show me.” (Marilyn, focus group, November 10, 2016). Multiple forms of assessment give the students multiple access points to the material. The participants found that it gave them many opportunities to see, hear, and recognize the student’s understanding of the material.

Collaborating with others – in and out of the music profession – was also an important part of successful integration of assessment in the music classroom. Some participants found that working with classroom teachers, principals, and special education teachers was helpful in understanding the appropriateness of a given assessment. Others looked to colleagues in the music profession – on both the local and state level – to find ideas.

What You Can Do

My research has led to two strategies for teachers struggling to unify theory and practice in their assessments.

First, actively engage in reflection about the value of assessment and which types of assessments matter to you. Taking the time to dig into the planning process will ultimately make you and your students happier with the assessments you give – and make you a more effective teacher. Don’t be afraid of trial and error, and offer multiple forms of assessment so that students can be successful. You’ll end up with valuable data not just about your students, but also about your assessments.

The second strategy that came out of my research is to seek out support. The teachers I interviewed were very deliberate about finding opportunities for professional development that could help them better assess students. These teachers are like many music educators around the country, striving to balance measuring musical growth with engaging musical activities. Finding support systems and professional development opportunities can make a big difference. Colleagues, including administrators and non-music teachers, are great resources.

If you are interested in a copy of the full study, please contact me directly.

I hope these strategies help you design and implement assessments in your music classroom.

Additional Resources

Brophy, T. S. (Ed.). (2008). Assessment in music education: Integrating curriculum, theory, and practice. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc.
Colwell, R. (2006). An assessment of assessment in music. In P. Taylor (Ed.), Assessment in arts education (pp. 57-82). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Colwell, R. (2008). Music assessment in an increasingly politicized, accountability-driven educational environment. In T. S. Brophy (Ed.), Assessment in music education: Integrating curriculum, theory, and practice (pp. 3-16). Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, Inc.
Creswell, J. W. (2008). Educational research: Planning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Hammel, A. M., Hickox, R. Y., & Hourigan, R. M. (2016). Winding it back: Teaching to individual differences in music classroom and ensemble settings. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hatch, J. A. (2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Marzano, R. J. (2006). Classroom assessment and grading that works. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Maxwell, J. (2006). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications.
Merriam, S. B. (Ed.). (2002). Qualitative research in practice: Examples for discussion and analysis. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Popham, W. J. (2008). Transformative assessment. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rachael Fleischaker is a doctoral student in music education at Kent State University and an adjunct professor of music education for the College of Wooster. Rachael has taught elementary band and vocal music in the public schools for 23 years with 21 years in the Canton City Schools in Canton, OH. She has also taught undergraduate coursework for Kent State University and The Ohio State University Mansfield Campus. Rachael is certified to teach music and reading and holds a BME from the College of Wooster and a MEd in Curriculum and Instruction with an Emphasis on Urban Education from Kent State University.

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