I have been reading quite a bit about assessing music in the classroom, particularly composition. A good place to read more is Martin Fautley’s blog. Basically, even after over twenty-five years of composition being an integral part of the curriculum there are some widespread weaknesses that are incredibly worrying. The first is that A-Level music teachers have little to no confidence in the marking of A-Level compositions. I can relate to this, in my teacher training we were given some compositions to mark by our tutor who we later found out was the Chief Examiner for Edexcel. None of us on the course agreed on what mark to give the composition and we all disagreed on the work put in, whether it was plagiarised and what creative processes were involved. It seems like little has changed over the years.
Fautley and other music educators have said that the answer to many of these problems with assessment is to assess composing rather than composition. This means putting an emphasis on the process rather than the product and is in keeping with the relatively recent focus on formative assessment in schools. They say the value is in the skills learned through composing – making mistakes, articulating ideas, refining ideas, improving work through feedback etc. The biggest problem with this is that most schools have whole-school summative assessment policies and this will not fit with them. However, as many schools are now changing their assessment policies as a result of the government abolishing National Curriculum levels it is a good time to bring forward these ideas on music assessment.
Although I agree with these educators on the value of formative assessment, I am unconvinced this is in preference to summative assessment of composition. There should still be a final product like there is for all coursework and examinations. This will come as no surprise but I do think we had it right in the past. In our harmony exams we had pastiche exercises of Bach chorales, string quartets and in years preceding mine they used to do fugue. This can be marked because you can see how accurately your work compares to the original. It is also educationally strong because it improves your harmony skills, something absolutely vital in my professional work as a composer. Examining boards still do assess harmony skills but I would get rid of any sense of personal originality and just go with more forms of pastiche. It should be communicated that the composition element of the course is deliberately asking for the candidate to copy a musical style. And when asked to say why personal composition is out of favour, to reply honestly that there were too many issues with marking individual compositions and there was too much variance in the results. A-Level musicians would understand that – why risk a good grade because marking is so erratic? Many people will cringe at this analysis and the downside is that we would not be formally assessing some really good composition work coming from young adults. It does seem to be defeatist but it is a way with actually dealing with the problem and if it has not gone away in the last twenty-five years, why should it now?
Edit 05/02/16 – I have just found out from another music teacher that pastiche is really what the examiners are looking for. He went on an Edexcel course that explicitly told him that A-Level examiners were looking for compositions that emulated a style. Note that this was just for one exam board, it might not be necessarily true for them all. We need to have some very serious discussions with examiners if this is true.