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Reported Uses of Assessment in Elementary General Music As in other curricular areas, music educators have noted increased pressure to test students as a measure of teacher accountability and to evaluate program effectiveness (Hepworth-Osiowy, 2004; Colwell, 2002; Shih, 1997). Assessments can and have been used in a number of settings in order to evaluate music teachers (e.g., Robinson, 2005) and programs (e.g., DeNardo, 2001; Duling & Cadegan, 2001; Masear, 1999). While measuring student progress as a way to monitor teacher accountability and evaluate program effectiveness are controversial uses of assessment as discussed earlier, the current study will focus on the role of assessment in student learning.

According to Hamann (2001), systematic assessment as a method of improving instruction may be underutilized in the majority of elementary music classrooms. Instead of systematic assessment, Hamann believed that many teachers rely on informal methods, such as observation of group progress, and asserted that formal assessment of individual progress toward specific music learning goals was rare. She stated that, although informal observations may allow a teacher to adjust instruction to address the broad needs of a group, “…it is only through formal assessment techniques that teachers are able to gather and report, detailed, objective information regarding individual musical achievement” (Hamann, 2001, p. 23). Schuler (1996) agreed: good music teachers have always informally monitored student learning, but few music teachers have systematically tracked the music learning of all individuals in their classrooms.

However, neither author cited research with evidence of these assertions. Fortunately, several researchers have undertaken surveys that have attempted to describe assessment practices in elementary general music classrooms across the United States and in Canada.

Shih (1997) surveyed 136 fifth-grade general music teachers in Texas regarding standards-based teaching and assessment practices and received 59 valid responses. The survey included a list of 82 teaching objectives from the Texas state curriculum. For each objective, the teachers marked how often they assessed and what method they used to assess. By adding up all the objectives that teachers reported assessing in any way, Shih found that 77.9% of targeted objectives were assessed. More specifically, teachers reported assessing 92.52% of singing objectives, 83.44% of listening objectives, 78.09% of movement objectives, and 65.39% of notation objectives. These percentages were based on any type of assessment—teachers could choose “written tests,” “checking individual performance,” “checking group performance,” or “other ways.” “I don’t check this objective” was also included as an option (p. 177). Therefore, percentages of assessment did not reflect frequency of assessment, and any type of assessment was counted toward the final percentage. Stated another way, 22.1% of objectives were not checked in any way.

By far the most popular way to assess was “checking group performance” (65.17% singing, 41.14% listening, 45.66% movement, and 31.32% notation), followed by “checking individual performance” (26.5% singing, 19.49% listening, 35.51% movement, and 24.91% notation). So, even among teachers who reported assessing in these areas, 64.5 to 80.5% did not assess individual performance. This data is troubling, because without measuring the achievement of individuals, these assessments are rendered useless as a tool for differentiation of instruction. Furthermore, this form of observation may not be sufficiently valid to be meaningful. Heddon and Johnson (2008) reported that reliabilities of teachers’ ratings of in-tune and out-of-tune singing based solely on observation ranged from.25 to.84, with a combined average reliability of.63. Although.63 could be viewed as a low but perhaps acceptable reliability, the wide variability of these reliability coefficients indicated that observation alone may be insufficient to judge singing ability accurately. Clearly, teachers must find ways other than checking group performance or observation to assess students’ musical performances if the results are to be sufficiently valid for use in guiding instruction.

Hepworth-Osiowy (2004) surveyed 190 elementary music teachers in Winnipeg, Canada regarding assessment in their classrooms. Her 88 respondents (46% return rate) indicated that they used a variety of assessment tools and stated that assessment was most valuable when it informed instruction. Hepworth-Osiowy drew the following three conclusions based on quantitative and qualitative data in her survey (p. 105): (1) Some teachers used on-going assessment (time spent assessing during each class), but the majority of respondents assessed on a less consistent basis (mostly prior to reporting times). (2) Teachers who did not engage in ongoing assessment reported that they had difficulty obtaining adequate amounts of assessment data, and they felt that assessment was stressful and difficult to schedule. (3) Teachers who used ongoing assessment reported less stress related to assessment and greater success in obtaining and reporting data. The impact of these findings in relation to student learning was not reported.

In addition, Hepworth-Osiowy asked teachers to rank different assessment practices by the frequency with which they were used. “Systematic observation and roaming” was by far the most frequently used method of assessment, followed by performances and exhibits, written tests, and checklists and rubrics. These results and the associated qualitative responses seemed to indicate that many teachers were using systematic observation of entire classes and wholegroup performances as the two main assessments of individual music learning. It is doubtful that these methods allowed for accurate assessment of each individual student’s skills and abilities.

Livingston (2000) surveyed the 414 members of the Organization of American Kodaly Educators Midwestern Division regarding assessment and grading practices. One hundred ninety-six surveys were returned for a response rate of 47%. Respondents reported grading 0 to 1200 students; some teachers were not required to grade. The average number of students graded by each teacher was 396. In terms of assessment frequency, 44 teachers (31% of respondents) reported assessing 0-9 times per year, and an additional 44 teachers said they assessed 10-19 times a year. Seven teachers (about 3% of respondents) assessed 20-29 times, 12 (about 6%) reported assessing 30-39 times, and 28 respondents (about 20% of the total) said they assessed “constantly.” The survey did not ask what was assessed or if the rates of assessment reflected assessing every student for every assessment reported. Further, Livingston did not inquire about how the assessments were linked to the grading practices described in the study.

The survey did ask what kinds of assessment were used, and the most frequent responses were:

teacher observation (n=137), live performances (n=118), quizzes/tests (n=100), checklists (n=64), rubrics (n=61) and presentations (n=60).

This survey also investigated how elementary music teachers graded learners with special needs and whether they used different assessment tools with these populations. Results indicated that many respondents graded special learners using the same assessments as other students (n=40, 28%) or used the same assessments with modifications, such as additional assistance, Braille, or alternate response styles (n=31, 22%). Seven of the respondents indicated that they 3 IL, IN, KT, KN, MI, MN, MO, NE, ND, OH, SD, and WI graded students with special needs according to their Individual Education Plan (IEP), while others indicated that they graded based on participation/effort/behavior (n=19), observation (n=11), or other social factors (n=4). Eleven teachers left this question blank, seven marked “N/A,” and 10 respondents indicated that they were not required to grade students with special needs. One respondent stated, “[I have] too many students with a wide range of needs to even attempt assessing individually” (Livingston, 2000).

In 2005, Talley surveyed 200 elementary general music teachers in Michigan. Of the 35 respondents (18% response rate), many did not frequently assess their students, and some did not assess at all. The survey asked what skills were assessed at which grade levels and how they were assessed. Talley’s results indicated that elementary music teachers did not use published achievement tests, and few used aptitude tests. Nearly 16% of respondents indicated that they did not formally assess students or did not believe in assessment. Teachers who did assess used self-designed measures including rating scales or rubrics, checklists, written tests, and worksheets. Each of these methods seemed to require individual response, but this was not stated explicitly in the research.

Respondents to Talley’s survey assessed subjects such as beat competency, singing voice, matching pitch, rhythm, recorders, music reading, and instrument identification. However, there was not broad agreement regarding the topics assessed: the highest level of agreement among the respondents on any single area of assessment was 50% for beat competency in kindergarten (p.

49). In addition, due to the low response rate, Talley’s results cannot be interpreted to represent all elementary general music teachers or even those teaching in Michigan.

Talley incorporated questions regarding respondents’ reasons for assessing and how they applied the results of assessments. The most frequently cited reasons for assessing included: (1) to allow the teacher to adapt instruction, (2) to assist in assigning student grades, (3) to establish if students understood a concept, and (4) to monitor student progress (p. 60). Respondents also indicated that they “... were motivated to assess their students for accountability purposes.

Assessment [also] motivated students and assisted teachers in evaluating their pedagogical techniques” (p. 61). In addition, Talley’s respondents indicated that assessments provided documentation of student achievement in music that could validate the role of music education in the general education curriculum.

Peppers (2010) surveyed all the elementary music teachers in Michigan regarding attitudes toward formal assessment. Specifically, she investigated why teachers used formal assessment, what challenges they encountered related to assessment, and what teachers believed would improve their ability to assess their students’ learning. Overall, Peppers’ 100 respondents (43% return rate) indicated that they strongly agreed that assessment was a valuable tool in their classrooms. Respondents’ beliefs varied regarding the purpose of assessment but were similar to results found in other studies. Most teachers reported using assessments to improve instruction, including measuring student progress over time, identifying students’ needs, and modifying curriculum. Respondents reported that assessments were used to communicate music learning to parents and to inform report card grades. However, respondents did not view formal assessment as a way to communicate with or motivate students: “Perhaps… because they believe that it may negatively affect their development or because they do not use formal assessment in their classrooms” (Peppers, 2010, p. 71). Some respondents reported negative attitudes toward formal assessment and seemed to equate assessment with grading (Peppers, 2010, p. 72). Most respondents indicated that assessment should be used to validate music education in the curriculum and that music assessments could communicate music learning to policy makers who controlled resources.

Several of Peppers’ findings disagreed with those of other studies. In contrast to Hepworth-Osiowy’s participants (2004), most respondents in Peppers’ study felt that their undergraduate studies adequately prepared them to assess music learning, although they did indicate that their ability could be improved with more study, reading, observation, and inservices. Unlike participants in Niebur (2001), respondents in Peppers’ study believed that music skills and learning could be measured and that formal assessment could be undertaken without dampening musical creativity.

When analyzed as a group, these five surveys regarding the assessment practices of elementary music teachers had several findings that were salient to the topic of this study.

Although some teachers did not assess or reported philosophical opposition to testing in music education, many teachers reported engaging in a variety of assessment practices. Some of this assessment was related to grading, and some was ongoing. Assessment was undertaken for a number of reasons, including improving music instruction. Despite a variety of challenges to assessment, many teachers persisted in attempting to discern the musical skills abilities of their students.

Challenges to Assessment in Elementary General Music When I began teaching elementary general music, the course of study I used had a column for evaluation. Many objectives for each grade level indicated that evaluation should occur through teacher observation of student performance. I began to wonder if I had the ability to validly observe hundreds of students. Remembering many things about many students was possible. However, I could not recall enough about every child to answer questions about their musical progress. Actually, at times I had trouble recalling a grade level or mental picture of a particular student… (Snell Miller, 2001, p. 37).

I have already described some of the difficulties related to assessment in elementary music, including many teachers’ lack of training in the design and use of assessment materials and the relative lack of testing resources compared to general educators. The above quote described one teacher’s recollections of her early experiences with assessment. She tried to use the materials available to her, but found them unhelpful, and was concerned that she did not know every individual student (among hundreds of children) well enough to picture faces, let alone describe musicianship. Researchers have discussed a number of challenges to the implementation of individual assessment practices in elementary music classrooms.

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