My hands were sweating as I gripped my Conn 24J tuba with all of the might that my sixth-grade muscles could muster. It was my turn to perform Walter Sear’s Sonatina For Tuba at our local solo and ensemble festival. I entered the crowded classroom and took a seat next to the old upright piano. The adjudicator, an older man with a fancy golden name badge, smiled and said, “Begin when you are ready.” I took a nervous breath and started the solo.
When I finished, the adjudicator grinned at me and said, “Come here, young man.” As I approached the table he said, “You have this solo memorized don’t you?” Stunned, I said, “No sir, I need the music.” With a gentle smile, he replied, “You were staring at me during your entire performance.” I was so nervous that I hadn’t realized that I had memorized the entire solo.
This was one of my earliest recollections of a formal evaluation in my life. But was it really an evaluation or was it an assessment? What was the purpose of the evaluation/assessment?
Let’s Define Assessment
The word “assessment” has been used in different ways throughout the years. Regardless of the exact definition, the word has become toxic in education. Visions of long, standardized, multiple-choice tests flood the minds of students when the word is evoked. Similarly, educators think of testing that in most cases does not reflect what is most important in their classrooms.
Tainted with the view that everything worthwhile can be measured and reduced to a number, educators pressed for data have to battle an inner war of both valuing assessment and discouraging it. We need to take back this term and use it for good in our classrooms.
Assessment plays a critical and vital role in the education process.
What is the Assessment Process?
Assessment simply is a strategy for gathering data that is directly linked to your outcomes. There are three steps in the assessment process; gathering information, evaluating that information, and then acting upon it. In practice, this process is continuous.
The first step is to assess or gather information about learning. To be honest, as educators we are always assessing students. In fact, it is impossible not to assess learners just as it is impossible to stop assessing internal things such as hunger, mood, energy level, etc or external things such as temperature and light. We are always taking the “pulse” of the class and individual students in an informal sense just as we are gathering in data about student performance, knowledge, and desires, beliefs, and connections.
The key to the gathering stage is to consider what information is important since there is so much of it. It is very easy to get swallowed up by the data or to get lost in less-than-important facts and numbers. What educators need to ask themselves is “What question do I want answered?” and “Do I have a tool to capture or gather the information?”
The second step in the assessment process is evaluation. Evaluation is defined as the process of analyzing or interpreting the data. When analyzing or interpreting the data we often compare the results to a set standard, others or ourselves.
As most researchers would tell you, one data point does not provide a tremendous amount of valid data. Acquiring data over time can help to identify trends yielding a clearer picture of stability, growth or decline. The question is how to collect reliable data over time and deciding what to compare it to.
The third step in the assessment process is to act. Based on the assessment and evaluation several possible actions could result including (but not limited to) grades, reflections, strategy modification, etc. It is important to note that assigning a grade is only one of the many actions that could take place. Moreover, assigning a grade or number may be the least significant action to affect student learning.
For example, you finish rehearsing a technical passage with your clarinet section and ask “Clarinets show using your hand a number between 1-5 as to how proficient you are playing that passage.” This “data” can help inform you and the student if a sectional (or some other strategy) is needed. It doesn’t mean that you should grab a grade book and jot down responses.
How Do We Assess?
Start with your outcome as this is the destination. Ask yourself:
- What evidence is needed for me, the student, and others to conclude that the student has made it to the outcome? Does the assessment(s) that I have created really answer this question?
- How much choice or autonomy does the student have in determining how they will show understanding?
- What tool could be used to clearly communicate different levels of achievement? Also, do the students have input into creating this tool?
Next, consider where your students are starting. Ask yourself:
- What knowledge, skills or experiences do your students already possess? How could I find this information out?
- Where will you begin so that you are capturing the majority of your class? For those students who do not fit into this box, what strategies do you have to support them? How can you identify these students?
- How can you avoid the “curse of knowledge”? In other words, educators sometimes gloss over things that come easy to us. We need to have empathy for our new learners.
Great news! Every strategy you create for your classroom is already a formative assessment. The key is craft creative, varied, and rich strategies that lead to your outcome. Ask yourself:
- What strategies will be best suited for student self-assessment?
- What strategies will be best suited for peer assessment?
- What strategies will be best suited for teacher assessment?
- For all of the above – what strategies would best be saved or documents (formal) versus just observed or “taken in” (informal)?
- What tool could be used to clearly communicate different levels of achievement?
Teacher, Take Heart!
Courage is necessary when assessing students. The wise teacher knows that they will learn a lot about themselves and about education from their students. True authentic assessment means to take a look at what is working and what is not working. When a class does poorly on a task is this a reflection of the teacher or the class or a bit of both? It takes courage to look at the “data” and evaluate what went wrong.
Often times, if an entire class does poorly it is mostly a reflection of the educator picking too difficult a task or not sequencing and layering skills/knowledge to get to the benchmark. Teachers with an open mindset will learn from this, reevaluate, and try a new approach. Teachers with a closed mindset will blame the students and refuse to look at their own teaching as the potential problem.
As Ken Robinson stated in his 2013 Ted Talk about the growth of the human mind, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” We need to harness the research and strategies to create schools that spark children’s imaginations. As music educators, let’s take back the term “assessment” and use it to help our students achieve and succeed.