Some thoughts on Assessment

Music teaching has been very strong when it comes to assessment.  The instrumental graded examinations are well established and well respected.  In fact, in David Blunkett’s period in office as Education secretary, he said that we should move general school assessment away from year group cohorts to a system of when you are ready, whatever age you are you pass a graded test.  But as we know full well, this is still a dream close to twenty years later.  Instrumental exams are very good at giving quality assessment for children regardless of age.  We can quibble about the cost, the preparation, the performance anxiety and stressful external examiners watching over anxious children trying to play music despite nerves and expectations, but in the end, children get good written feedback and a certificate worth something to them.  It even counts for UCAS points.  And in my case, it has got me jobs that I wouldn’t have been able to get without them!

But assessment in classes is a totally different kettle of fish.  This is where assessment in Music goes wrong.  Sometimes we have group assessment.  In my opinion this is close to worthless.  I have heard countless students recollect their experiences of group work in Music lessons where one person does all the work, or you end up with a rubbish grade because some lazy bugger messed it all up for all of you.  There are things we can learn from group assessment but it is not a good way to assess children individually as the actual grade given is often more to do with behaviour and attitude than ability.  We can do paired assessment but again, in Music the nature of sound means that it can be very difficult to assess who is doing what, especially if they play or sing in unison.  So we go back to individual assessment and we end up with the difficulty of hearing thirty students play individually in a class assessment lesson.  These lessons are normally my most unsuccessful because quite frankly the children get bored listening to each other play and as a result switch off, fiddle, gaze out the window or get up to some mischievous behavior when I am distracted trying to listen intently to a pupils performance.

Interestingly, the most successful lessons are the lessons after the assessments where the children are desperate to do it again but do it right.  It’s not just a case of trying to change their grade, they want to improve from the feedback they have been given.  The problem is we assess near the end of a module; what we need to be doing is assessing the first or second week in and then continuously refining our performances.  But that way we also run into boredom as who wants to keep on playing the same thing over and over again, week in and week out?  There are no easy answers.

And the main correlation I have found with assessment is the more you assess, the less you can teach.  There is certainly some truth to the expression “you can keep weighing the pig but it won’t get any fatter if you don’t feed it”.  We do not have the time in our weekly hour or so lessons for 36 weeks a year to mess around with colour-coded, meaningless grades that are demanded from hungry school management IT systems.  So my penny’s worth is basically, if we are going to assess we need to do it early and then reassess.  It needs to be low stakes and needs to be meaningful.  Sadly, in most schools around the world, class Music assessment is the complete opposite.  

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