Thursday, May 28, 2015

Assessing Assessment

A colleague recently wrote to me with these concerns:

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?)   

My reply:

The point of assessment OF learning is to make it assessment FOR learning. That is, to hold yourself and the students responsible for knowing where their strength 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. And to do that means yes, assessing every kid. Not always easy and sometimes impossible if you have large groups and a few hundred students. That's another discussion. But if you're going to go to the trouble to write a report card, it needs to be real. 

And though the techniques of assessment and criteria might be different for music than for math, it feels important that it be included in the school policy. 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.

We are notoriously nervous as educators that our kids aren’t actually learning what we’re trying to teach them. Maybe our obsession with assessment is lack of faith in our own powers of transmission. And yet it is true that the learning experience is a dance between the teacher and student and both need to work to learn the steps. So somewhere in-between “whatever” and hovering with a red pencil each step of the way is the ongoing conversation to check in on what’s working and what needs more work.

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