Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Standards Based Music Assessment

OK ... I know that every music teacher has sat in an inservice and had this discussion:
Teacher #1 - We need to talk about performance assessment today.
Teacher #2 - That's what music teachers do all the time!
Teacher #3 - Every other department should be doing what we are doing!
Teacher #4 - Yes!  Teach kids math to the point that they can all stand on stage and do it near-perfectly.
Teacher #5 - [incoherent grumbling about standards and assessment]

I admit - I've been every single one of those teachers at some inservice in the last 16 years.  And, yes, I do believe other curricular areas could learn a lot from those of us who don't know any kind of assessment except performance assessment.  But we need to speak a common language in order to do that - and the current language of education is standards, rubrics, data, strategies, growth, and so on.

Music teachers understand rubrics all too well - directors and judges use them at contests, auditions, and festivals to provide feedback and often rank groups.  I have had students celebrate or cry based on these forms.  But these rubrics are designed for use by teachers and adjudicators who have years of experience - not for students who are just learning the building blocks of what it takes to make quality music.
"Tone" category on Wisconsin vocal solo ballot - great for teachers & judges
Let's say you are a middle school vocal student.  You are overwhelmed with learning how to be a member in an ensemble rehearsal, learning how to read an octavo, learning how to sightread, learning about intervals, and a host of other foreign symbols, rhythms, and notation.  If a director hands this ballot to students, this description of "tone" is not going to help much.  Yet most directors would agree that tone is the most important topic in musical performance.

Given the ballot above, the beginning student may wonder:
• What is "focused" tone?
• What is "appropriate breathing"?
• What is "vowel placement"?
• What is a "range" or "register"?
• What does "open, resonant, and full" mean?
• Why are the vowels spelled funny and out of order?
And that's just for tone!  Clearly, the rubric needs to be "unpacked" (another educational buzzword) for student use - especially if you are going to base musical academic achievement on these rubrics.

As directors, we say "I know good tone when I hear it".  But that doesn't really matter if we are teaching students to be independent, quality musicians.  Can students recognize good tone when they hear it?  Can students explain how one produces quality tone?  Tone is, after all, simply the result of the many physical choices a musician makes with his/her body.

In the next several blogs, I am hoping to unpack some of the realizations I have made this last year about standards-based assessment for musical growth.  They are the product of research and struggle, both on my own, and as a department.  They are not perfect.  But I am excited about putting them into greater practice this year, and hopefully they will resonate with you.

To be continued ...

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