Assessment: an integral part of teaching and learning
Assessment is central to the effective teaching and learning of music. It encompasses the many and varied situations in which the teacher observes the child's participation in musical activity and in the application of knowledge, skills and understanding. Such opportunities for assessment arise when the child composes something new, plays an instrument or sings, listens to live or recorded music, or shares responses and ideas in a class discussion.
Assessment in music is related to the sequence in which musical knowledge and understanding are acquired. A new concept will not be grasped unless the previous concepts are understood: for example, the child needs to learn about note values before being asked to read a particular rhythm pattern from sight. By identifying the child's learning needs in music the teacher can adjust instruction and plan more appropriate activities.
Roles of assessment: why assess?
Assessment can fulfil different purposes, which can be called upon at different stages of the teaching-learning process. In music, assessment ensures that the activities provided by the teacher meet the needs of the pupils, building on their growing expertise and understanding. Used effectively, assessment can identify the potential in children of all ages and abilities. However, since the optimum period for developing the child's capacity for music is early childhood, it is imperative that this potential is identified and built upon early in the child's primary school years. Assessment can also identify areas of weakness or gaps in pupils' learning and provide information on how instruction should be modified.
Reflection on day-to-day teaching and learning can help the teacher to form a precise picture of what the child needs to learn next. This type of continuous assessment, which 'feeds forward' to future work, can be described as formative assessment. It is effective in ongoing teaching in terms of meeting short-term goals and objectives.
Assessment that provides a synopsis of what the child has achieved so far in music can be described as summative assessment. It is usually used at prescribed intervals when a unit of work has been completed. Summative assessment is useful when the teacher needs to record information in a structured or systematic way, or to report on progress in music to parents or to other professionals.
In some circumstances the teacher may wish to identify specific help that a child may need in music. Objective assessment of this kind plays a diagnostic role and requires sensitive assessment tools.
Finally, assessment can play a planning and evaluative role when the effectiveness of the teaching and assessment techniques are reviewed by the teacher and when decisions are made about how the work in the classroom should proceed, within the context of a whole-school plan for teaching music in the school.
In rare instances a teacher may wish to confirm his/her belief that a child possesses exceptional musical talent, which should be carefully nurtured. This may be verified through seeking the opinion of a colleague and/or through administering a simple singing or listening test or a standardised test of musical ability or aptitude.
Assessment in music: what should be assessed?
Assessment activities should reflect the typical musical processes and products outlined in the content statement. These encompass two broad dimensions: the inter-related strands of listening and responding, performing and composing, and the integrated musical elements.
Strands and strand units
The first aspect of assessment will be concerned with the knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes within the strands --
Listening and responding
In the Listening and responding strand, assessment will link the two strand units 'Exploring sounds' and 'Listening and responding to music' by addressing the range of responses the child makes to music. These include the use of vocal sounds, words, large or small movements and other media, to interpret musical elements. The development of sensitivity and openness towards music in various genres and styles, from different periods, cultures and ethnic groups may be observed as the child expresses his/her emotional reaction to music.
During the process of Performing, involving song singing and playing instruments, the child in infant classes will exhibit the skills and commitment required to demonstrate a sense of pulse, imitate simple rhythms and sing or play simple melodies. As confidence grows, dynamics and phrasing will bring meaning and expression to the child's singing and playing. In first to sixth classes the child's emerging understanding of invented or standard musical notation may also be noted. In senior-level classes in particular a distinction may be made between the child's solo performance and his/her performance as part of a group or class.
Assessment in the Composing strand will examine the process, i.e. the efforts of the child to illustrate new musical ideas by improvising, composing and arranging sounds, alone or with others, in ways that involve imagination, originality and risk-taking and that demonstrate control of musical materials and use of musical elements. Assessment will also address the product of composing, which encompasses the child's evaluation of the composing activity, knowledge of electronic media, and use of standard and non-standard notation to record ideas.
The musical elements
The development of understanding of musical elements (pulse, duration, tempo, pitch, dynamics, structure, timbre, texture and style) should form an equally important aspect of assessment, interwoven as they are with the strand units, as outlined in the content statement.
Assessment tools: how to assess
Music learning is easiest to assess when children are actively involved in making music. Teachers and children frequently evaluate as they go along, as part of the learning process. For this reason assessment in music is more concerned with clarity of purpose than with complex procedures, additional time or resources. The most effective assessment occurs while the music is still 'in the air' and when the teacher invites the child to respond imaginatively in a variety of ways.
In this section, the use of teacher observation is discussed as the principal assessment tool in music. A number of other recommended approaches include:
teacher-designed tasks and tests
work samples and portfolios
Observation and recording of the children engaging in musical activities will enable the teacher to form and articulate impressions of what characterises the children's work, to monitor their progress and to ensure that each child's needs are being fulfilled.
In using observations as an assessment tool the teacher should be clear about what aspect of musical behaviour he/she is expecting the pupils to demonstrate and should anticipate learning outcomes before making observations. Continuous informal questioning by the teacher and the use of class discussion enlighten teacher observation, while brief conferences help create dialogue about particular aspects of work and overall development of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Many observations will be made during collaborative group tasks, but the teacher may also encourage the children to perform in twos or threes to ensure that each child's engagement in musical activities is noted.
Pupils may be observed working in groups or as individuals in the following contexts:
- listening attentively to music
- talking about what has been heard as part of a class discussion
- illustrating or writing about what has been heard
- listening to the responses of others
- moving to music
- singing a favourite song
- playing an instrument
- reading a simple rhythmic or melodic pattern
- sharing ideas for a composing activity
- selecting and organising instruments
- rehearsing a performance
- attempting to record compositions, either on tape or through invented graphic notation, simplified notation or standard notation.
Teacher-designed tasks and tests
A direct and efficient method of assessing groups of children in music is teacher-made tasks and tests. These range from written tasks, such as writing about a piece of music or taking a simple rhythm dictation, to performance tasks, such as playing a tune or singing a song from memory. Performance assessment allows for the assessment of products (for example a recording of a group composition), process (for example how the instruments were selected) and process and product combined (for example how the group selected, varied and arranged instruments and worked co-operatively to create a musical performance). Performance assessment does not require additional time or resources and it provides an authentic method of assessment that complements the objectives and pedagogy in the curriculum.
Work samples and portfolios
In the compilation of work samples and portfolios as assessment tools the teacher can learn a great deal more about the child's development as a musician and can use the information gleaned in further instruction.
A portfolio that contains a child's work collected over time can vividly display the depth as well as the breadth of his/her learning in music. As an assessment tool, it can be used over a relatively short space of time, for example one school term, or over a longer time, such as a two-year period. The items contained in a portfolio should represent the range of activities throughout the three strands: Listening and responding, Performing and Composing, and may include items such as invented notation, drafts of compositions, details of a listening project, a tape of a performance of a composition, notes on self-assessment and comments from peers or from the teacher. Ultimately, the design of the portfolio is determined by the purpose to which it is put, whether as a repository for all music-related artefacts, as evidence of growth over time, or as a showcase of the child's best work.
Pupil self-assessment is an effective means of discerning the child's process of learning that is closely allied with portfolio and other forms of assessment. In the composing strand self-assessment plays a critical role in the creative process and this is emphasised in the strand unit 'Talking about and recording compositions'. It can be used to foster reflection, both verbal and non-verbal, and higher-level thinking, and it can also provide a fresh insight into the teaching and learning process in music.
A learning log can heighten the significance of the child's self-assessment and reflection on his/her work sample or portfolio collections. In addition, it may provide a record of the child's perceptions and a potential insight into his/her developing attitudes towards music and music-makers of different cultures and times.
Like teacher-designed tasks, portfolio assessment requires clarity of purpose rather than additional demands on resources or time, yet it is effective in managing and assessing the child's learning experiences in music over a specified period.
While portfolios can serve to highlight the work of individual pupils, projects allow children to work collaboratively in a shared musical experience. In assigning tasks to various groups within the class the teacher should ensure that the purpose of the project, the expectations for each member of the group and the assessment criteria, both technical and artistic, are clarified in advance. Additionally, in the designation of responsibilities within groups it is important that, for assessment purposes, the workload be evenly distributed as far as possible. The following are examples of group projects:
- composing music to tell or accompany a story
- playing a tune from memory
- designing a musical instrument or family of instruments
- composing a song
- inventing a form of notation
- composing a dance sequence
- selecting and listening to a number of pieces of music to compare and contrast.
Work samples, portfolios and projects form part of summative assessments, since teachers can draw on these and on their own records in arriving at an overall grade or score for a student.
Curriculum profiles are records of achievement that are primarily based on teacher judgements of pupils' achievement with reference to key objectives in the curriculum. Profiles seem particularly suited to music, since other standardised measures are usually unavailable.
The main features associated with curriculum profiles are indicators of achievement, levels (or bands), and assessment tasks or contexts. Indicators are outcome statements that describe the achievement of an individual child and are generally linked to the objectives of a curriculum. Examples of indicators of achievement in music include 'recognises music as loud or soft' and 'plays a variety of tunes on a melodic instrument'. When grouped together, sets of indicators form levels (or bands). In rating a child's achievement the teacher may refer to his/her performance in various assessment tasks (such as those referred to in the section 'Teacher-designed tasks and tests'), to portfolio collections, to project work, to personal learning logs or to anecdotal evidence recorded during or following class lessons.
Curriculum profiles can assist the teacher in making an informal but valid and reliable assessment of the child's performance in music towards the end of a school year.
A balanced approach to assessment
While a broad range of suitable assessment tools in music has been emphasised, it should be understood that it may not be desirable or practical to use all these tools continuously. As part of a whole-school approach, teachers and staff may give priority to certain tools to match particular approaches to music, adapting them for different learning situations or for varying time spans. The manageability of assessment is dependent on having a well-planned, consistent approach to teaching and envisaging clear learning objectives in the first instance. Assessment in music, being primarily based on learning in action, will not usually require any additional materials or absorb class time.
Recording and communicating
The range of assessment tools, teacher observations, teacher-designed tasks and tests, work samples, portfolios, projects and curriculum profiles provides a comprehensive system of assessing and recording each child's level of participation, understanding, knowledge and skill in all aspects of the music curriculum. This wealth of information can be used in discussion with parents, teachers and other professionals to create a clear picture of the child's achievements as well as his/her future learning needs in music.
Pupil profile card
A summary of each child's achievement in music should be recorded on the pupil profile card, which would be kept on file in the school. Essential information contained on this card should cover the three strands of the music curriculum and might outline in brief the child's range of listening experiences, proficiency in singing and playing instruments, attainment in musical literacy and a short summary of composing endeavours.