Okay, who is rolling their eyes out there?! Really? Assessment is fun?
Well, it could be. If we understand more deeply what it means and why it’s important and how it’s important and how to do it so that it’s something wholly in line with our subject and not some thing apart. A colleague recently wrote to me with these kinds of questions and below are my first-draft answers.
In our curriculum we clearly have standards and together, based on the curriculum, we made Statements of Content students should know by the end of the year. The problem is we have a very big difference of opinion in what, how and even IF we should be assessing things like 16th notes, read certain rhythms, can they match pitch etc. And do we need to individually assess every kid? Is it good enough that we could likely predict the outcome for the student? Is that what's important? Isn't just making kids love music the most important (we all agree yes that is our main goal...but is it enough?)
Great questions all. And the answers are, “Yes, and…” Let’s start at the beginning. What’s our goal in assessing? For me, the point of assessment OF learning is to make it assessment FOR learning. That is, to hold yourself and the student responsible for knowing where their strengths and challenges are and to answer the question "How can I help you? How can you help yourself?" If you discover that a kid has trouble matching pitch, the point is not to stigmatize them and discourage them with a bad grade, not to judge them and label them. But also not to just ignore it. If matching pitch is a problem, let's try to fix it because it feels better to sing in tune than out of tune.
And off you go with whatever strategies you can dig up. And note when a breakthrough occurs. That elevates the whole enterprise to a craft to be taken seriously, worked at and improved. Yes, the joy of music is the beginning and end of the matter, but in-between is the reality that deeper understanding and skill bring MORE joy to the experience of music.
Just how we assess makes all the difference in the world. Some ideas below:
1) WATCH THE CHILDREN. You should be assessing in every second of the class, not only noticing, but giving a running commentary. When the preschoolers freeze into a shape after moving, I might exclaim: “Wow! Look at Harry’s shape! He’s using every part of his body and I can see the energy in his muscles!” Now the kids not only figure out that I’m watching them closely, but they get a model of what an inspired shape is in contrast to a lackluster one. And now they’re motivated to do better.
The group as a whole also needs feedback to constantly evaluate its performance. Not only from you as the teacher (“I loved the way we were paying attention to dynamics, it really drew me into the music”), but from the kids—“How did we sound? What might make us sound better?” “How did that dance go? What can be improved?”
2) SOLOS: The multiple ways we give kids a chance to solo gives us a chance to hear or see how they’re doing without undue pressure to “perform and I will be grading you!” From a little game about going around the circle to find a way to express your name with a gesture to hearing kids working on a recorder passage four at a time, two at a time, one at a time, to a game where everyone goes into the center and “shows us their motion,” Orff classes abound in opportunities for kids to show what they can do and how they can do it. And we are noticing every step of the way, not only to know what else they might need to improve, but to wholly celebrate where they are at the moment.
3) IMPROVISATION: Improvisation is one of the most organic, effective and telling ways to see and hear what a child understands about a particular musical concept or style of music. Likewise, composition. This is a fun, natural and authentic way for kids to show what they know, a thousand times more revealing and interesting and important than proving they can correctly identify a pattern of 8th and 16th notes. If you really want to assess that, have them improvise or compose a passage using only 8th and 16th notes.
Again, I involve the children in the process. When small groups go off to make up a dance and then come back to share, at the end all groups dance at the same time and then they freeze in a shape and point to their favorite group. Then they’re responsible for articulating why they chose that group. “I liked the way they divided up so half were rising and then half were lowering. And their smiles while they danced were infectious.”
4) THE SHOUT-OUT: Sometimes at the end of class, especially with the middle school children, I give a shout-out to a child who did something particularly impressive. “Angela had a killer groove on the ride cymbal that carried the whole ensemble.” “Jeremy couldn’t find the melody and kept working and listening and finally got it. And then played in perfectly every time.” Again, I’m focusing on each child’s little breakthrough moments in the context of actually playing music rather than some fantasy that every child shows a perfect understanding of some list of a 100 details of music-making.
5) 360 DEGREE ASSESSMENT: Most administrators nervous about documenting kids’ perfect understandings might want the music teachers to show tangible proof that every child can identify 8th and 16th notes. If shown their perfect written tests, they might smile and rest assured that competent teaching and learning has occurred. May I comment here? HA HA HA!!
Intellectual understanding of a musical concept is a laudable accomplishment, but it is just the tiniest drop of water in an ocean of possibilities. Every moment of every class, we are assessing a thousand things— technique, hearing, musical sensitivity, listening, responding, attention, focus, social skills, relationship, care, energy, enthusiasm, alertness, joy, progress, connection, appreciation, excitement, control, questioning, curiosity, risk, support, physical presence, posture, commitment, response to challenge—shall I go on? But we don’t separate them out and tick them off like a shopping list. We know what good music and dance sound and look like, how an involved student learns and we are constantly praising, advising, suggesting and correcting.
To say it again: we are assessing for learning with an eye as to how to help each student not only be a better musician, dancer, artist, but also a better student, friend, human being. We stay away from numbers and letters except in a casual, playful ways (“On a scale of 1-10, that was about 8.5. Let’s move it up a notch next time.”), deal with the specific issues that come up in specific ways (“Don’t lift your fingers so far off of the recorder. Drop your jaw when singing that round vowel sound. Start this xylophone passage with your right hand.”) and look for those breakthrough moments and yes, write them down so we can remember and put them on the report card.
See how fun assessment can be?!