Less Toscanini, more Lenny
Authentic assessment is a topic that has been on my mind since the days of my undergrad. The birth of high-stakes testing and data analysis have thrust many old-school directors into a world where the model of the “easy A” is no longer viable. For me and many other teachers of my generation, assessment has a far greater meaning than it did during my own formal schooling.
Let’s look at the model that I grew up with first. Each teacher wielded great power with grades. They had autonomy in creating their own curriculum, grading systems, and had the final say over your grade. There was great mystery in how we earned our grade in band. There was not a clear breakdown of exactly how grades were calculated. We were told, “Just show up and participate every day and you’ll get an A.” Easy A sounds good to everyone. I never really knew how other people fared in class, but I did wonder if that trombone player behind me who didn’t practice and couldn’t play very well got the same grade as I did.
At some point in the mid 90s came the birth of standards based education. This was a relatively new concept taught to us in our undergrad a few years later, and became the norm once I entered the teaching field. The idea of someone else deciding what was to be taught was a paradigm shift that I struggled with, as did teachers who had decades of more experience than me. This was the new world that we were to live in.
I’m not sure exactly when it was that I came to accept this reality, but what I’ve come to understand is that the standards are not there to stifle creativity and create conformist robots, but rather to elevate teaching, provide structure, and provide constructive feedback for students. It’s the last bit that really changed things for me as a teacher.
Your grade should mean something. It should be reflective of the body of work that you’ve done, with an emphasis on the quality of work. Every assignment, test, or quiz should be an opportunity for students to receive feedback on what they’ve done, help them develop a plan for how to improve, and be a part of an upward spiral of learning.
The separation of behavior from the assessment was another topic I struggled with. I grew up in a system where you were assessed penalties for late work, threatened with penalties if you incorrectly graded another student’s assignment, and extra credit was a big deal. After teaching for several years and tweaking things along the way, I realized that penalties and extra credit skewed the grade in such a way that the final grade did not give anyone an accurate assessment of the quality of their output. Gone are late penalties and extra credit is an extra opportunity for the student to show mastery of the standard. Deadlines are firm and I can only assess you on what I’ve seen. I don’t see it, I can’t assess it.
Here in Hawaii, standards-based grading is largely limited to the elementary schools. We have standards-based instruction and standards-based assessment in school, but the final course grade is still the traditional A-F system and averaging is still king. A few progressive schools and individual teachers have forged the way for standards-based grading but they are few in number and have struggled to implement those systems with what we have to work with. I still average, but mostly out of convenience and familiarity for all parties. I am not opposed to standard-based grading at all.
Online grading is the acceptable standard and transparency is paramount. We can’t make an error without anyone knowing, and there is very little leeway for rounding up. The “easy A” is a thing of the past. Some see it as crippling the teacher. I see it as empowering the student and their family support system. More information at your fingertips is a good thing right?
We’ve come a long way in education and my teaching has evolved quite a bit since starting 13 years ago. Here’s where I stand with assessment today. Please keep in mind that this is from the perspective of teaching middle school band.
· Formative Assessment was a major buzzword about 10 years ago, and I knew that it was something I was already doing pretty well at. I provide instant feedback for my students in many ways throughout the school year, in every class meeting, and every rehearsal.
· Summative Assessment was the other side of the coin that was going to be more difficult. How do you give a fair and accurate assessment for a course that has objective and subjective components? How do we ensure that the student’s final grade is reflective of the quality of their output?
o The first thing I did was discard the idea of the “Easy A”. That was a cop out for teachers more obsessed with the quality of their performances than with individual student growth and long-range learning. That’s not a student-centered model. It’s teacher-centered: teacher doesn’t have to do much grading; teacher makes all of the decisions; teacher doesn’t have to answer to parents who are unhappy about their child’s grade.
o I came to accept that some students will get a B, some will get a C, and a few here and there may end up with a D or F. As long as I am able to justify it, I can be at peace with those grades. My friend calls me the GPA killer. I call it authentic assessment.
o I looked at the only formal assessments that kids are given: Solo and Ensemble Festival, and Large Group Festivals and started with those models for breaking things down in my own classes. Here in Hawaii, those events eventually became rubric-driven, and suddenly numbers and ratings had more meaning than they ever had. Those rubrics were tweaked over time and comment boxes helped adjudicators to go beyond the limits of the rubric. This model became the basis of all assessment for individuals, small groups, and the ensemble as a whole.
· The logical step for me was to take that which is subjective and break it down to its parts, processes, and stages. I made the subjective slightly more objective.
o What makes for great tone? Science has answers to that question, and Tonal Energy’s recording and analysis tools have become a great tool for students in class and at home. It’s okay to talk about embouchure, air, striking area, mallet selection, mouthpiece/reed/ligature choice, etc.
o What is a great phrase? I listened to many great performers, asked questions of those players, and narrowed everything down to a set of basic principles that I teach my students.
o What is good ensemble sound? I broke ensemble sound down to topics like balance, relative intonation, consistent articulation, timbre, texture, and clarity. I teach/preach these concepts in warm-up and reinforce them in performance music.
· Our online grading tools allow me to provide very specific, rubric-driven feedback to my students when they take formal playing tests. They see the descriptors from the rubric as it relates to their score as well as any additional comments and suggestions I have. I try to provide suggestions for improvement on those areas of weakness in the comments.
· The dreaded practice log/charts were overhauled. Everyone has lied on those at some point or another and will continue to do that until the end of time. How do we make it a valid and authentic tool for learning? The traditional model of a practice chart is quantitative and I wanted to focus on that being a qualitative tool. Thus came the birth of the Goal Sheet. Students are expected to break down their practice into a healthy balance of exercises (rhythm, scales, articulation, lip slurs, etc.) and music for performance. They need to have clear, realistic goals in mind, a process for achieving those goals, and a metronome on nearly all of the time. The check and balance in this is the informal assessments that I make through the course of each class.
· Instruction shifted to become less teacher-centered and more student-driven. In class, we talk about and use practicing strategies ad-nauseum, but we DO NOT drill. Repetition has its place but the large ensemble rehearsal is not the place for that. When we are together, we focus on what we need as a group. When students are on their own, they do what they CAN do without the group. Peer assessment is a regular feature of our rehearsals. It is very clear to everyone that the ensemble decides how good we will sound.
A major life changer for me was when someone shared with me the idea that as conductors, “We control the totality of sound, yet we make none.” I think that might have been from Peter Boonshaft. We have to instill a burning desire to practice after a rehearsal and develop a drive in students to come to each rehearsal in better condition than the last. I discarded the vision of myself as the Maestro who holds the secrets to success. This is not about me. It’s about the kids and giving them the tools to make great music and fall in love with making great music.
Jason Chin is the Band Director at Kawananakoa Middle School in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is in his 13th year of teaching and his 10th year at Kawananakoa. He has served in various leadership capacities with the Oahu Band Directors Association including President. He has served as a guest conductor for various honor bands in Hawaii. He holds degrees from the University of Northern Colorado and Sam Houston State University.