Friday, October 31, 2014

Year 5: Week 9 – Assessment #1

Assessment along with instruction and curriculum create the trifecta, the “braid” as one of my graduate school professors referred to, which is teaching. If any of these three factors are misaligned or don’t support the other factors, than truly effective teaching cannot happen.

If you have a fantastic curriculum, but do a poor job with instruction your assessments tools will suffer. If you have amazing instruction skills and great materials to teach but your assessment tools are poorly developed, it undercuts all of the other work you do in the classroom.

In order for these things to be truly aligned teachers need to think very carefully about all three of these aspects as they plan and teach.  If one of these factors is too weak, if one ends up leading the other too far too strongly, learning suffers.

This is the case when a teacher is given an outline to a standardized test and he or she feels pressured to “teach to the test.” This ends up creating an imbalance forcing curriculum and instruction aside that can rob students of meaningful learning experiences.

Music teachers can sometimes get away with focusing less attention on assessment. Our subject is not included in standardized testing and often doing things like playing tests can be cumbersome, but in my view point, this is no more challenging than grading a stack of essays.

This week I gave my band kids there first formal assessment of the year. We decided early on in our planning that we wanted to align these major assessments across band and choir. While they were different there was similarities between the quizzes, which we felt reflected the different musical disciplines.

I assess my students every day. Sometimes it’s informal, listening to them warm-up and often it’s formal through Smart Music. This quiz we did last week was a written quiz, which assessed their knowledge of certain musical concepts but also evaluated their ability to translate their thoughts into words.

Whenever you ask a student to put a pen to paper you are assessing the student's writing ability. Teachers have to be very careful that they aren’t intentionally assessing things that may not be relevant to the class. If I truly wanted to just focus on their musical knowledge, for many students, short answer essays would hinder their ability to demonstrate that knowledge.

The reason that I was comfortable with this quiz assessing their writing skills is that it teaches me a lot about our students. There are some kids who play really well but struggle with putting their into writing. For that student it’s critical that I balance this student’s writing with his or her playing. Also, I find that some students who aren’t the strongest musicians write really well about music. This gives me an important insight to their minds and what they are getting out of class.

As I grade these quizzes I’m modifying future lessons and instructional techniques. Every assessment is an important reminder of not only my student’s learning but my own teaching. If every student gets the same question wrong, it’s probably my fault for not utilizing effective instruction techniques.

The other important thing about having formal quizzes and tests in music class is that it legitimizes the class as not just an activity in the eyes of the students, parents and other teachers in the building. While this is not a central reason to give a quiz, it is an important one to consider.

You’ve got to keep that braid strong. It’s a constant struggle to make sure curriculum, instruction and assessment are balanced in our teaching. When we think deeply about what we do, when we dive deep into the meaning of our curriculum, the depth of our instruction and the effectiveness of our assessments, we address students’ whole experience as a learner and a student.

Within this trifecta, we find truly great teaching. In this way we make learning feel organic and relevant and most importantly personally meaningful to our studends.

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