Assessment without Levels

In England a space has been created for re-thinking approaches to assessment, progression and curriculum in Music. This is in response to a new national curriculum. Professional associations, their satellites, as well as individual schools and teachers are, and will be (or may not be) working to fill the void. [1] They will be seeking to provide a blueprint that will make sense of a minimal National Curriculum in Music, improve on the past and find consensus in achieving worthy standards for the future.

In response to this scenario I am finding out about the day-to-day realities of music teachers at Key Stage 3. Starting from the ways in which teachers think about their practice, I suggest, is likely to be helpful. [2]

Here is my first meeting with this reality in the case of one teacher. The teacher emailed:

‘I don’t think I have good practice in assessment. My students know that I am looking for creativity in composition, and musicality in performance. The more of each that they demonstrate, the higher their level. And they trust that I will give them the right level. I don’t have descriptions or criteria. They know that I am pleased when they have enjoyed a musical experience. That seems to be enough motivation for them to want to carry on experiencing/achieving. Then when I increase the challenge and equip them with new skills, their achievement increases. Assigning a description to the musical experience has always been the boring part. They know that this boring part needs to be done to carry on with the good part – that’s just part of life! So they complete their assessment booklets and stamp a level on an experience or creation. I am possibly doing it wrong.’

I suspect that what the teacher is telling here is recognised by many teachers, that is, the disjunction between classroom interactions, relational pedagogy rooted in formative assessment and the school’s system of normalisation. But if there is to be a phasing out of levels what will take their place?

I pointed out to the teacher that the National Association of Headteacher’s Commission on Assessment has recommended that a year by year set of objective criteria be set out against which each pupil is assessed at appropriate times of the year as either ‘developing’, ‘meeting’ or ‘exceeding’ these criteria. [3] The teacher responds:

Some of my students will forever be ‘developing’. I don’t think I like this approach. It would undermine my sincere praise and encouragement, just like the levels do. My students care more about what I think of their music than the level I give; my reaction to and enjoyment of what they have created is their motivating factor. You don’t give a gift to someone for them to label it with a description; it is their reaction that defines the gift’s success.

But this is too vague, I know. And there is no data from this that can be fed back to SLT.’

I then encouraged the teacher to be less ‘vague’ and say what was valued in respect to pupils’ development. In what ways do pupils become more creative, more musical?

‘They become more creative through use of novel chord progressions, experimentation with layers, deeper specific emotions are expressed e.g. loss or mourning rather than plain sadness, for example.

They become more musical initially through precision and accuracy, and when that is mastered, through individual expression/unique interpretation.’

A fascinating narrative is emerging and some broad criteria, and a sense of progression. The conversation needs to continue as scope for finding a meeting point with the ISM guidelines, for example, comes in to view. But there will be a lot more wrestling to be done.

This teacher began by saying ‘I don’t think I have good practice in assessment’. What should be noted is that this teacher’s practice is drawn along by an ethical framework in which assessment and progression is defined by musical and relational values despite the requirement to conform to the demand for data for SLT. For this teacher the journey of coming to know and understand music is one made together with individual pupils.

The conversation continues. What criteria could be made that recognise precision, accuracy, expression, interpretation in respect to musical performance, composition and improvisation? ‘Play and sing with consistent and appropriate tone’. How does that sound? Could that be part of a hierarchy of criteria? Is placing criteria in a hierarchy problematic? If it is, how is progression accounted for? …

Notes:

[1] The National Association of Headteachers has given a strong lead in finding a fresh framework. See Report of the NAHT Commission on Assessment, February 2014. The ISM has produced a ‘Guide to progression, curriculum and assessment’.
[2] The translation of policy into practice has a checkered history in England. More needs to be done in finding meeting points between the teacher’s conceptions of practice, their values ie. their ethical position and policy guidelines.
[3] Other versions of this three-part arrangement include: working towards, working at, working beyond; not yet able to, able to, confidently; novice, competent, expert.

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5 thoughts on “Assessment without Levels

  1. A sub text arise from your conversation with the mentioned teacher – the ongoing disparity between teaching and learning in more performance focused activities as opposed to projects that target the ‘composition’ process.

    The vast majority of our music teachers are experienced performers who have, at best, dabbled in the world of composition; many have rejected it / ignored it and simply don’t actual understand the process with anywhere near enough attention to detail.

    You asked your interviewee to be less vague and they gave you:

    ‘They become more creative through use of novel chord progressions, experimentation with layers, deeper specific emotions are expressed e.g. loss or mourning rather than plain sadness, for example.

    That was the LESS vague version of their approach towards teaching composition…aaaargh!

    As well as having worked as a professional composer for over 20 years, I have also taught music and Music technology for even longer – whole age range from 5 – 18, (and occasionally beyond with private students)…and in far too many cases, the approach towards creative, composition activities has not really improved a great deal over all that time…needs addressing in an organised, structured way so that professionals can be guided towards an appropriate, consistent, flexible and successful approach.

  2. A sub text arises from your conversation with the mentioned teacher – the ongoing disparity between teaching and learning in more performance focused activities as opposed to projects that target the ‘composition’ process.

    The vast majority of our music teachers are experienced performers who have, at best, dabbled in the world of composition; many have rejected it / ignored it and simply don’t actually understand the process with anywhere near enough attention to detail.

    You asked your interviewee to be less vague and they gave you:

    ‘They become more creative through use of novel chord progressions, experimentation with layers, deeper specific emotions are expressed e.g. loss or mourning rather than plain sadness, for example.

    That was the LESS vague version of their approach towards teaching composition…aaaargh!

    As well as having worked as a professional composer for over 20 years, I have also taught music and Music technology for even longer – whole age range from 5 – 18, (and occasionally beyond with private students)…and in far too many cases, the approach towards creative, compositional activities has not really improved a great deal over all that time…needs addressing in an organised, structured way so that professionals can be guided towards an appropriate, consistent, flexible and successful approach.

  3. Further enquiry might show more about approaches to composition in this case and that would be interesting. This is not the issue under consideration however.

    On the issue of the teaching of composing presumably the Listen, Imagine, Compose research recently published will assist in addressing your concerns.

  4. Yes, I realize it wasn’t your main focus; it just struck a chord as I read the article! :0)

    Assessment with / without levels, (I’ve been down both routes over the years) – it doesn’t really matter as long as the underlying message is targetted at an individual’s needs and is organized cohesively but flexibly.

    LISTEN, IMAGINE, COMPOSE – yes I’ve read the summary and full report a couple of times…I’ve lived ans worked in Birmingham for many years, (the research was led from here), and I know BCMG well…

    The report makes a lot of very intelligent points, but it also has a few issues:

    1) It does very much give the impression of coming from a mainly classical music perspective in many ways and at times seems a touch blinkered and narrow in its outlook….a small point this one, but perception is all too often reality!

    2) For me It doesn’t really successfully tackle how all its genuinely interesting ideas can be established successfully in the secondary school system on an ongoing basis.

    If it can be circulated around schools, ( I came across it via a different route), and have some influence, then it’s potentially a very good launching pad.

    1. LIC: yes, I take your point – coming from a Classical conception of the composer. I have blogged about teaching composing and I am aware that I have confirmed that conception with the example I give, while acknowledging there are other perspectives and some time I will blog further about this having read ‘Composing. sonwriting, and producing: Informal popular pedagogy’ in Research Studies in Music Education 35 (2) 213-237.

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