R – Old model: what we teach matters. New model: what our students learn matters. That’s standards in action. But these two things are the same thing you say? I used to agree. I don’t anymore. Read on. I touched on some key issues in standards, assessment, blah blah blah… part 1, here are some reflections on standards based education and assessment as it pertains specifically to performing ensembles.
I went to standards based assessment about 5 years ago for a variety of reasons. One of the significant “ah-ha” moments in my career was when I formed a class at YHS called “Chorale” and the prerequisite was that this must be the first time you’ve ever sung in High School to enroll. I took a very rudimentary approach to those students and necessarily changed both the curriculum and how I taught it (and this is where Jarika taught me how to do so better…). I was assessing them on things such as note names, reading key and time signatures and so on – things that members of my regular chorus had already learned but that an amazing amount of newbies had not. The other difference was that I spent significantly more time in Chorale working on sight reading. In other words, Chorale was a music literacy class through which they also learned performance literature, Chorus was a performance class through which they also learned literacy. Well, wouldn’t you know it, by the end of the first term, my new kids were more functionally literate than my Chorus students. What is wrong with this picture? Plenty! Chorus was about what I taught (literature), Chorale was about what the kids learned (skills) and I was embarrassed that the difference in literacy between the two groups was so stark. Two years later, my performance ensemble offerings have now been completely revamped to be an amalgam of both approaches. Why? Because literacy AND performance skills are both non-negotiable “musts” for me. Do I perform fewer selections at my concerts as a consequence of my focus on literacy? Yup. Is it worth it? Yup. Literacy = applied skills = essential standards.
Both my sections of Chorus (Chorale has been done away with since now I teach all my choral students the same content with the same approach) took an assessment on key signatures earlier this week (YHS choral standard “e”) and the scores were all over the place. Benefit #1: the kids on the fringes quickly realize that they can not “go through the motions”. I have a lot of students who take Chorus as the path of least resistance to fulfill their music requirement (I have 90 first time singers just this first semester alone, and over half of them just for the credit). Guess who got “1”s and “2”s on their assessments? I could have predicted it too… when we went over the material in class, multiple times, those students didn’t take it seriously. But now they have til the end of the semester to bump that score up to at least a “3” or else they fail the entire course. Remember, grades are averages… you can BOMB a key signature quiz in traditional grading and still receive an “B” for the course if you ace everything else (“participation” grade anyone???). But not in standards based assessment and grading. Benefit #2: the kids must demonstrate proficiency. The stories I could tell you from 2 years ago when underachieving Chorale students were coming in asking for help would blow your mind. To see them finally get a concept that they simply would have brushed aside if they were only given “grades” instead of standard scores (1 through 4) made my entire year. The same is about to happen in my choirs this next quarter. How do I know that? It’s already started. Four kids in just the last two days showed up in my office – randomly – and said, “okay Berg, let’s go over key signatures, I gotta get this”.
So Benefit #3: there is authentic student academic accountability. I have students enrolled in Chorus who are depending on a passing grade to receive their diploma. You don’t think they’re going to be doing everything they can to get that “1” or a “2” on their key signature assessment up to a “3”? I have kids who know if they fail this course that they will have to take another music course. You don’t think they’re at least as motivated to learn content? Again, this mentality does not occur with “graded” quizzes (grades: “what can I do to get my grade up?”… standards: “okay Berg, let’s go over key signatures, I gotta get this.”)! And having concrete standards that are identifiable and measurable? Benefit #4: performance ensemble courses get put on the same academic plane as courses in the other content areas. All of the sudden, “talent” has nothing to do with it. All of the sudden, the class is identified – by students and parents and colleagues and administration and community – as academic. All of the sudden, what the students are learning is concrete. All of the sudden, what the students are learning is objectively measurable, just like in the other academic content areas!!! All of the sudden there is articulated academic rigor in a course generally perceived as having none. Let me repeat that: all of the sudden there is articulated academic rigor in a course generally perceived as having none. Benefit #5: there is authentic individual accountability. When my students do their monthly singing assessments, I have a running record of how they are doing towards meeting specific performance standards. You want to know the definition of “cool”? Have a parent come in for conferences, listen to them ask how their son or daughter is doing, and then say, “let’s listen to them and we’ll talk about it” before having them listen – and watch – a smartmusic assessment done live by their son or daughter. I have had parents start crying (literally) as they listen. And then we talk about the direct correlation between what they hear and the performance standards I hold the students to. The parents often leave dumbfounded. THAT is cool… but isn’t that the way it should be? And talk about ADVOCACY??!!! Benefit #6: students and parents can articulate exactly what is being learned. That is the core of advocacy, people being able to clearly articulate the value and benefits of music education. But frankly, it’s also at the core of authentic educational practice, period. In standards based instruction and assessment, you can’t not know what is being learned! The standards are what are listed in my students’ online gradebook…. we use powerschool, and the standards and daily assessment scores toward those standards are what they see when they go online. Sorry folks, a student saying, “Hey, I sang Ave Verum by Mozart!” is NOT an articulation of what they learned. It may be an articulation of what you taught, it may be an articulation of an activity that they performed, but in no way does it even begin to say what they learned.
Listen, there is no perfect set up for a music program, and I don’t pretend that York’s possesses one or is one. Nor do I pretend that I’m consistently adequate at what I try to do each day of my career. There is always plenty that needs to be continually refined, improved, altered and reconsidered every year. But it is a process of joy that I do so. And the students are the greatest beneficiaries. What are some practical ways to implement standards in a music program? Yet more to come on the topic!