by Chris Gleason
Instrumental Music Educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
“OK class, today is practice chart turn in day.” Audible groans and murmurs came from the band. As I began collecting the monthly practice charts I noticed Spencer writing “20 minutes” in every box on the chart. I moved in on his position like a stealthy cougar ready to pounce. With a triumphant “A Ha!” I snatched his paper and told him to follow me into my office. I immediately picked up the phone and called his father. “Mr. Williams, I just witnessed your son filling out his practice chart and forging your signature.” With little hesitation, Mr. Williams responded, “No, I filled it out and signed it this morning.”
How could this be possible? The child was lying and so was the father! My first instinct was to dock both Spencer and his father 10 points for a committing a crime against musicianship. Instead, I took a long hard look at what I was doing to create an environment in which kids lied about practicing and parents covered it up.
After many years of making mistakes, reflecting, and reading, I have come to a few conclusions:
1) Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning.
2) Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task.
3) Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.1
So how do we get students to stop focusing on the grade? How is assessment different than evaluation? What role does assessment play in my classroom?
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
The word “assessment” has been used in different ways throughout the years. Regardless of the exact definition, the word has become toxic in education. Visions of long standardized, multiple-choice tests flood the minds of students when the word is evoked. Similarly, educators think of testing that in most cases does not reflect what is most important in their classrooms. Tainted with the view that everything worthwhile can be measured and reduced to a number, educators pressed for data have to battle an inner war of both valuing assessment and discouraging it. We need to take back this term and use it for good in our classrooms. Assessment plays a critical and vital role in the education process.
WHAT IS THE ASSESSMENT PROCESS?
Gathering Information: Assessment simply is a strategy for gathering data that is directly linked to your outcomes. The Assessment Process includes three steps (as seen in the figure below). The first step is to assess or gather information about learning. To be honest, as educators we are always assessing students. In fact, it is impossible not to assess learners just as it is impossible to stop assessing internal things such as hunger, mood, energy level, etc., or external things such as temperature and light. We are always taking the “pulse” of the class and individual students in an informal sense just as we are gathering in data about student performance, knowledge, and desires, beliefs, and connections. The key to the gathering stage is to consider what information is important since there is so much of it. It is very easy to get swallowed up by the data or to get lost in less-than-important facts and numbers. What educators need to ask themselves is “What question do I want answered?” and “Do I have a tool to capture or gather the information?”
Evaluation: The second step in the Assessment Process is evaluation. Evaluation is defined as the process of analyzing or interpreting the data. When analyzing or interpreting the data we often compare the results to a set standard, others or ourselves. As most researchers would tell you, one data point does not provide a tremendous amount valid data. Acquiring data over time can help to identify trends yielding a clearer picture of stability, growth or decline. The question is how to collect reliable data over time and deciding what to compare it to.
Act: The third step in the Assessment Process is to act. Based on the assessment and evaluation several possible actions could result including (but not limited to) grades, reflections, strategy modification, etc. It is important to note that assigning a grade is only one of the many actions that could take place. Moreover, assigning a grade or number may be the least significant action to affect student learning. For example, you finish rehearsing a technical passage with your clarinet section and ask, “Clarinets show using your hand a number between 1-5 as to how proficient you are playing that passage.” This “data” can help inform you and the student if a sectional (or some other strategy) is needed. It doesn’t mean that you should grab a grade book and jot down responses.
HOW DO WE ASSESS?
Summative: Start with your outcome as this is the destination. Ask yourself:
- What evidence is needed for me, the student, and others to conclude that the student has made it to the outcome? Does the assessment(s) that I have created really answer this question?
- How much choice or autonomy does the student have in determining how they will show understanding?
- What tool could be used to clearly communicate different levels of achievement? Also, do the students have input into creating this tool?
Diagnostic: Next, consider where your students are starting. Ask yourself:
- What knowledge, skills, or experiences do your students already possess? How could I find this information out?
- Where will you begin so that you are capturing the majority of your class? For those students who do not fit into this box, what strategies do you have to support them? How can you identify these students?
- How can you avoid the “curse of knowledge”? In other words, educators sometimes gloss over things that come easy to us. We need to have empathy for our new learners.
Formative: Great news! Every strategy you create for your classroom is already a formative assessment. The key is craft creative, varied, and rich strategies that lead to your outcome. Ask yourself:
- What strategies will be best suited for student self-assessment?
- What strategies will be best suited for peer assessment?
- What strategies will be best suited for teacher assessment?
- For all of the above – what strategies would best be saved or documents (formal) versus just observed or “taken in” (informal)?
- What tool could be used to clearly communicate different levels of achievement?
TEACHER, TAKE HEART!
Courage is necessary when assessing students. The wise teacher knows that they will learn a lot about themselves and about education from their students. True authentic assessment means to take a look at what is working and what is not working. When a class does poorly on a task is this a reflection of the teacher, the class, or a bit of both? It takes courage to look at the “data” and evaluate what went wrong. Often times, if an entire class does poorly it is mostly a reflection of the educator picking too difficult a task or not sequencing and layering skills/knowledge to get to the benchmark. Teachers with an open mindset will learn from this, reevaluate, and try a new approach. Teachers with a closed mindset will blame the students and refuse to look at their own teaching as the potential problem.
• What and how we assess points to what we value. What we spend time and effort assessing ultimately tells our students what is most worthwhile about their experience in our classroom. We can speak about the importance of creativity, critical thinking, internal motivation, and process over product, but do these values shine when it comes to the assessment going on in your classroom? Do you assess what is easy to measure or what is actually most important? Do you utilize progressive teaching practices, but then run out of time for any meaningful feedback? Could your students explain your classroom assessment process to their parents?
GOING BEYOND THE GRADE
I embrace the belief that teachers can de-emphasize grades, while building intrinsic motivation when we promote autonomy, mastery, and purpose. For example I have my students take ownership of quarterly reflections and individualized self-assessments that are based on rubrics created by the student and teacher. Parents rave over the quality and depth of the multifaceted report that includes both student and teacher comments. I engage students’ distinct and diverse interests and intelligences by using authentic summative projects that are presented in a video prior to performances (or as we call them, “informances”). I educate students about their brains and myelin. Instead of demanding practice charts, I teach the value and characteristics of deep practice. I also teach the value and necessity of mistakes, something too often stigmatized in our product-focused education system.
As Ken Robinson stated in his 2013 Ted Talk about the growth of the human mind, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” We need to harness the research and strategies to create schools that spark children’s imaginations. As music educators, let’s take back the term “assessment” and use it to help our students achieve and succeed.
 Kohn, A. (2011, November). The Case Against Grades. Educational Leadership.
Chris Gleason is an instrumental music educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He is the 2017 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year and the first Wisconsin teacher to be named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 50 years. Chris is the recent recipient of the UW-LaCrosse Burt & Norma Altman Distinguished Alumni Award, 2017 GRAMMY Music Educator Award semifinalist, 2016 Michael G. George Distinguished Music Education Service Award and 2018 National LifeChanger of the Year Award nominee. Chris is also a Teacher Leadership and Engagement Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.