R – I’ve spent a lot of mental time recently thinking about where music assessment stands in the great state of Maine right now. And my concerns lie around lingering misunderstandings of 1) what a “standard” is, 2) what it means to “assess”, and 3) how standards tie into our music programs. This blog post focuses on the first two items (part 2 will cover the third). The Arts Assessment Initiative was set up to move us forward in our understandings of assessment, practical application in the classroom, and using it all as a springboard to cause us to refine our curriculum and instructional practices. By any measurement, the initiative has succeeded in doing this on many levels. We are the only state out of 50 that is moving on assessment in a way that provides ownership to the individual teacher; catering and implementing to their own unique circumstances. We are all in different places in our assessment journey, but that does NOT have a negative connotation in my book! What this means is merely that colleagues can be mentors, we can learn in authentic ways from trial and error and we can model and adapt success stories along the way. This is good stuff! But misunderstandings remain about what “assessment” and “standards” are, and that DOES leave me concerned. So here is an imaginary conversation with an imaginary music teacher to help clarify a few things.
Thanks a lot MENC… because of the language in the National Standards released in 1994, we now have a couple of generations of music educators who wrongly believe “singing alone or with others” is a standard. It isn’t. It never has been. “What is it then?” It’s an activity. A standard, on the other hand, is a learning expectation or a skill or a knowledge point. The mere act of singing is none of those! “Okay party pooper, but isn’t singing a skill?” No it ISN’T! It REQUIRES skill(s) but it is not, inherently, “a skill” at all. “Ah, but now you’re contradicting yourself: you just said that there ARE skills required to sing!” AH-HA!!!! Yes I did, and THOSE skills are ripe for being identified as standards!!! (insert desired lightbulb moment here???)
I’m expected to do WHAT?… “Okay, what standards should I be assessing then?” Start small, and start intuitively. We have the 2007 Maine Learning Results (which, incidentally, are standards) as well as the National Standards revision coming out as soon as next Summer (and coming this March as a trial run). But decide what works for YOU! If it’s authentic and essential, it will appear in the standards document of your choice anyway, right? So back to your question: if putting an instrument to ones lips and blowing through it does not automatically ordain a student as having achieved a standard, what standards can you assess as the student puts the instrument to the lips and blows? “Here’s a good start: tone, note accuracy, following dynamics and articulation.” Spot on. Excellent! Now: how will you assess these four standards? “Uhhhh, um, in rehearsal???” Right… your ears are that good that you know how the 2nd chair third trumpet specifically sounds in rehearsal. Despite playing at the same time with all those other trumpets? Yeah. Please teach me sometime how you do that, I’d love to know. “Don’t get sarcastic on me!” Sorry. Here’s the problem with large group assessment: it’s like taking a math class, giving them all the same test using ONE piece of paper, having them all collaborate together as a class of 24 kids (sharing answers), and then grading it and giving every kid the exact same grade based on what they did together! You know what would happen if you ever assessed that way on a regular basis as a math teacher (AFTER you were called into the Principal’s office to get chewed out?) A pink slip!!! Yeah, it’s that egregious. You can’t listen to the band as a whole and state that every player is producing the precise, exact same tone. You have to listen to each individual to assess that! “What’s that, pinhead? I shouldn’t assess my ensembles???? How stupid a statement is THAT!” Listen carefully as I say what I’m about to say: There is extraordinary value in assessing the ensemble… but just don’t EVER call it a standard, and don’t EVER claim that you are using it to aurally assess the individuals within the ensemble. But as long as you brought up the point, let’s explore this…
Forma… summa… HUH?… In assessment terminology, there are two HUGE terms to remember because they are impactful (I made that word up – sue me) in extraordinary ways. Formative assessment is an assessment that is basically used as a “gut check”… for the student AND for the teacher! “I don’t get it. Give me an example.” Have you ever had a group of students repeat back to you a lesson you taught? Have you ever worked on a section of music and then tried putting the sum of the parts back together to see if it got better?
Have you ever tried egg nog in your coffee? Have you ever given a practice exam? Given a reflective writing prompt? That is all formative assessment. “Hold on moron, you just finished telling me how I can’t use large group assessment to assess the individual and now you’re saying I can???” Did I SAY you were assessing the individual in the large group? “Well, uh, no, but…” Know WHY you assess and know WHAT you are assessing! We use formative assessment every 5.72 seconds in rehearsals, don’t we? We are MASTERS at formative assessment! “But if it isn’t for the individual and it isn’t for a grade, really, isn’t this concept just busy work?” Only when it isn’t utilized as a reflective/informative process. BUT, when it IS utilized as reflective/informative, it becomes powerful! I become aware of what strategies are working better than others, and I use that information to change my instructional strategies. I become aware of students who are struggling, and I adapt strategies for that individual student. STUDENTS become aware of where they are lacking, so they know what needs more work and understanding. Formative assessment rocks because it offers midcourse corrections. If our classrooms are indeed sites for meaningful educational journeys, why in heaven’s name would you hand out the map AFTER the fact? Maps are to be used in transit. THAT is formative assessment, for teacher and student alike. Remember the example I just mentioned a minute ago of the math class taking the assessment collectively with one piece of shared paper? “Vaguely.” Guess what? Formative assessment! “Woah! You said I’d be fired for doing that!” No I didn’t, I said you’d be fired for giving them all the same GRADE! But what a great idea for a class-wide formative assessment, for their benefit and the teacher’s! The activity is one thing, knowing the PURPOSE of the activity is another. Along those lines, but now on the flip side, Summative Assessment is an evaluation of the end point. This is the measurement of the goal. “This is like ‘the test’, then.” It can be. But as it translates to standards, this is ONE snapshot of progress. It may be the first of many, it may be the last of many, or it may be somewhere in between. But it is a more formalized snapshot. “Uh, that sounds a lot like formative assessment to me…” Sometimes it can be both! But the most important thing about summative assessment is that the expectation is in place for proficiency because the ground work for understanding has already occurred. Formative assessment helps to get you and the students to this point, but summative is the end zone. “Um, I repeat: this is like ‘the test’ then.” There’s a big difference when it comes to standards based assessment: in traditional grading, the test is a stand alone item in a grade book, there for ever and ever, Amen. A standards based summative assessment score is malleable. When a theory student of mine does a summative assessment, they know that they can do another summative assessment down the road to improve their proficiency score! If a student gets an “83” on a quiz, it’s there forever. But if a YHS Theory student takes a triad assessment and gets a “2” (partially meets) on the “second inversions” standard, they know that they can brush up on that specific standard and then do another assessment on the exact same standard later on! The “2” will then be replaced with the higher number when they finally do achieve it. “If they can take the test over again, isn’t that cheating??!!” I don’t know, you tell me: are students here to meet the needs of the assessment or the other way around?
A person walks into the doctor’s office with a broken thumb. TRADITIONAL GRADING: “Congratulations, your hand is at 80%, move it just a little bit more and you would have made honor roll!!!!” STANDARDS BASED ASSESSMENT: “Four of your fingers are fine but the thumb needs help. Let’s focus on it and get it working as well as the others.”
To be continued. If you want to see an outrageously awesome blog on standards based assessment, check out this site(!!!!!), NO ONE should go further in their professional development around standards without reading it: