Assessment of student learning is at the heart of effective teaching. Understanding student performance, diagnosing what was done well, what has yet to be improved, and providing specific feedback to students has the potential to significantly improve your music program in very real and meaningful ways. Assessment data can become an integral component of improving any music program if it addresses learning outcomes that are clear and focuses on the aspects of student performance that are most important.
Assessment is essential because it leads to improved learning, improved teaching, and provides information that can be useful for accountability purposes such as teacher and student evaluations. It is also intellectually engaging as it provides a window into how our students learn. Students become aware of what they most need to work on to improve. They feed off this information when it comes to them in a clear, timely, and positive manner. Students become proud of their work and strive to accomplish the next task.
In addition to providing feedback on the group level, it’s vital to provide specific feedback on individual student achievement. This can be tough to do as music teachers are usually extremely busy and, in many cases, teach a large number of students. In addition, teachers are often unsure what to assess and lack appropriate assessment measures or training to create their own measures for classroom use. Typically, teachers have also not experienced or been provided with proven models of assessment for use in performance classes. Developing, from scratch, assessment procedures along with valid and reliable measures of student achievement is a daunting task to ask of any single teacher. What follows is an attempt to provide both experienced and novice music teachers with ideas of how to more effectively assess our students.
It is important to find out what the students know. At the beginning of each year or unit, examine what musical skills and concepts the students have already learned. Diagnostic assessment is important because it establishes a baseline against which future learning is compared. It is easy for teachers to overestimate what students have previously learned. Diagnostic assessment is especially useful in situations where students are new to the school either due to matriculation or transfer. Music teachers often use activities such as auditions or sight reading as a form of diagnostic assessment. Checklists and rating scales are useful measures for assessing music performance at this stage.
Determine What to Assess
After assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your students you can begin to make decisions about what musical skills or concepts your students most need to improve. Teachers should focus on the most important goal or standard achievable during the time frame available for instruction.
It usually helps to begin with the end in mind. Develop a clear mental image of what you want to achieve through your instruction. After you have developed both short- and long-term goals, work to establish more specific and measurable learning objectives. A learning objective is an observable outcome that can be measured to provide evidence of what a student can do or know. After establishing the learning objectives ensure that your instruction and class activities are developed to achieve those objectives.
An example of a goal or standard might be “the student will be able to perform a phrase with technical accuracy.” The learning objective might then be “the phrase will be played or sung using accurate notes, rhythms, and articulations.” The learning objective is measurable and operationalizes the goal or standard. Teachers are most effective and students most successful when clear goals have been established and learning objectives shared with students.
Expectations must be made clear.
Remember that assessment should be targeted. It is impossible to assess everything. Assess a limited number of learning outcomes; those that are the most important and will make the biggest difference in your students’ performance. It is much better to assess a small number of outcomes that will make a real difference in your students’ performance than try to assess too many elements and not improve anything. In addition, assessing a limited number of outcomes will decrease the amount of time spent on assessment. If what you are most interested in is improving intonation, for example, then design a quality measure to assess that well and work to truly improve that skill.
How Will You Assess?
After you have chosen your educational focus for a particular group of students, you can begin to make decisions about how and when you will evaluate student progress. Assessment must involve the collection of concrete information about musical skills and concepts accurately and objectively.
Two important elements of educational measures are reliability and validity. Reliability means that scores are a true representation of students’ knowledge or skill level. You can trust the scores the students receive. Validity is the extent to which an assessment accurately measures what it is intended to measure. For example, if your goal is to measure students’ ability to sing a passage using solfege, having them write in the solfege on the notation would not yield useful information.
Item Alignment and Development
It is important when designing measures of achievement that you align your assessment methods, items, and tasks to match your learning objectives. The learning objectives will dictate the type of assessment you use. You also want to develop assessment measures that are going to be simple enough to be readily used in the classroom and which will provide data that is useful and can be easily analyzed.
There are many different measures and item types that can be developed and used in the classroom. As many teachers have music performance as a primary learning goal for students, rubrics become an important tool for assessing progress. A rubric is a set of scoring criteria used to measure a student’s performance on an assigned task.
Rubrics are useful because they add a level of objectivity to the assessment process. One of the most beneficial aspects of rubrics is that they provide a written description of what a performance at each of the different achievement levels should look like. This helps students to explore the various achievement levels and what is expected to become proficient at each one. Rubrics also serve as written documentation of student achievement that can be used for accountability purposes. Figure 1 is an example of a rubric that might be used to measure solo music performance.
As you become more comfortable with rubric development, an almost endless number of adaptations can be created to accommodate any number of situations.
As an activity, you might work to define the levels of proficiency with the students. Be sure to create the descriptions of each achievement level using terminology that your students can easily understand. In this way, they will be able to use the information to improve their performance. Rubrics also allow students to more fully grasp and internalize the learning objectives. Permit and encourage students to use the rubrics to assess their own performance and that of others.
Other Measure and Item Types
In addition to rubrics, there are many other assessment tools that could be used to assess music students. These could include portfolios, multiple-choice questions, true/false questions, matching, short answer, reflective writing, exit slips, reports and projects, and more. Many musical concepts can be assessed more easily using one of these item types. This includes information such as historical context, form, notation and terminology, theory, ear training, critical analysis, and pedagogy. The options are almost unlimited.
Assessments can be used as bell work and don’t have to be long or interfere with instructional time. Sometimes only a few questions will provide you with a wealth of useful information on the progress of your students. Written assessments can provide valuable information and should not be neglected. They can be created to reinforce the established goals and objectives and strengthen what students are learning in class.
The assessments you have created are then used to monitor student progress during instruction and to provide ongoing feedback to the students. This is referred to as formative assessment and is an essential step in the assessment cycle (and is contrasted with summative assessment which happens at the end of the unit). The feedback from formative assessment should provide concrete information on how to make improvements toward achieving the learning objectives. Avoid general feedback such as “good job” or “keep practicing.” This provides little guidance to students. Students require information that is specific and individual. They need to know what they have done well and what they have yet to achieve. Formative assessment is best when it is embedded in instruction and is ongoing.
Music teachers often assume that as ensemble performance improves, students are learning. However, we often have little formal evidence to know for sure. Additionally, if learning objectives and specific goals for each rehearsal are not clearly communicated to students, they have no real way of knowing how to measure their progress. Using the assessment tools you have created will allow you to measure that progress in a tangible way. Remember also that students can be helpful in assisting you to gather data and track progress. During the formative assessment phase, rubrics are an effective assessment tool and are great for providing useful feedback to students.
Practical Assessment Strategies
One way to decrease the amount of class time required to assess students is to evaluate them individually as they are rehearsing in class. As they are performing, walk amongst the ensemble, rating the students as you pass by. Students are performing authentically within the context of the group. Other ideas might be to have individual sections play alone, hear students by stand, sing/play one or two on a part, or any other method you can think of to isolate students. Pick a different group of students each day limiting the amount of time on any given day taken by assessment. You can also sample from the music being performed. You don’t need to have students play an entire work. Make comments using an assessment tool and then provide feedback individually to the students.
At least a few times during each assessment cycle you will want to use a more formal mode of assessment to collect formative assessment data. Using a recording system that minimizes disruption to the ongoing class activities would be helpful in this case. Students record and submit their performances to the teacher. For this, teachers have multiple options. Recordings can be made during class. For example, you could send students one by one to have one opportunity to record their performance. Another option is to have students record their performance tests outside of class. In this way, students could have multiple opportunities to record and submit their best performance. You can choose whichever method best meets your needs.
Technology can be very helpful in your collection of data. A software program like SmartMusica allows students to practice and perform receiving direct feedback on how they are doing. It also provides a method for the teacher to offer personalized feedback about a student’s performance. Teachers can keep track of what their students are working on, determine how long they are practicing, and maintain digital records of their performance for future reference.
Portfolios are another great assessment tool. Rubrics and other assessments you administer become artifacts in the student’s portfolio. The options for artifacts are limitless. Students should participate in the construction of the portfolio and have opportunities to include self-reflections and assessments of their progress.
Students become invested and are proud of their work and the portfolio’s construction provides students new insights into their growth and musical understanding.
Provide students the opportunity to self-assess. This can be done at the group or individual level. Self-assessment provides students with guided opportunities to measure their own learning in relation to the learning outcomes. Another benefit is that students are able to more clearly articulate course goals and requirements. Peer assessment can also be helpful when you structure the feedback to be positive and constructive.
Have students complete a one minute paper or an exit slip that has them reflect on their learning. Students answer questions such as:
- What was the most important thing you learned today?
- What questions do you have?
- What was the one thing that helped you learn the most this week?
- What is the one thing in class that is least helpful to your learning?
- Which musical passage do you struggle with most?
It is important, however, to report back to the students what you have learned from this feedback and how that information can be used to improve student learning. Reflective writing develops critical thinking and reveals the thoughts of the students, which would otherwise be unknown.
Summative assessment occurs at the conclusion of the learning process to evaluate student achievement on the learning objectives. Data gained from summative assessment is a way to summarize student learning and is usually formal. It also frequently serves as a baseline to set future goals. Assessment tools that work well for the summative assessment of music performance are checklists and rating scales.
Uses for Assessment Data
Assessment data has many uses. Providing information that students can use to improve their learning and giving teachers the ability to make decisions on their teaching are big ones. Assigning grades is also a primary use. Develop your grading procedures using the assessments you have created and administered throughout the learning process.
Other uses for the data might include ensemble placement, chair placement, to place students together who are at similar achievement levels or to place students with tutors, to communicate progress to parents, and to track student improvement. Assessment data has many uses all of which could be extremely helpful in improving your program.
Assessing students in a way that truly reflects their learning in the classroom is key to improving your music program. Assessment should provide information to students on an individual level that will provide them with clear direction toward improvement. A good assessment system provides accountability and helps to place the responsibility for learning on the student.
Do not reinvent the wheel. Take advantage of the expertise of those around you and be open to sharing your ideas with others. If you need help or want feedback about something you are doing, don’t be afraid to ask. In addition, as you create or find assessments that have worked for you, keep them.
While increasing systematic assessment initially may seem to be an activity that requires more of a teacher’s time, it may eventually save you time as learning will become more targeted and students will be provided the tools necessary to help themselves. Don’t give up: experiment to find a system that works best for you.