I’ve been blessed to have contact with teaching colleagues from many different states this summer, through my work as an Orff Schulwerk Pedagogy instructor. One topic that often comes up is the requirements of assessment in various districts around the country. First, let me assure you, there is no consensus. I have taught for many districts where the administrators are far too busy to worry about the music teacher and their assessments, and the teachers are free to plan assessments around their own teaching and their students’ needs. Other districts require one or more district-wide common assessments, sometimes referred to as SLOs, SLAs, or CFAs. In some states, these standardized assessments are even used to evaluate teacher quality.
When one of my districts decided to begin moving toward a common assessment, we discussed assessment as a percentage of instructional time. You would think this is a common discussion, but try Googling my title above. I can find no research directly on this topic.
Since my district was simultaneously adding common assessments to other subjects like Math and Reading, we were able to make the case that the assessments should be proportional to the amount of instructional time available. Let’s say an elementary math class takes one common assessment per week (which seems like a lot to me, but is not unheard of). In Iowa, many students have math for 60 minutes per day. That’s 60 x 5 or 300 minutes of instruction for each common assessment.
In this district, music classes are somewhere between 40 and 90 minutes per week. If we take a figure of 50 minutes per week (for easy math), then it would take 6 weeks to have the same amount of instructional time in music that students receive in math in one week. Add to this lost time in review, with memory retention hindered by the sporadic schedule. So, logically, common assessments should only be given once every six or more weeks, not once per week.
Thankfully, my district understood this logic, and based on various different schedules we settled on 2-3 total common assessments per year for each class. This was enough for us to get a snapshot of our students and how they were progressing, yet not too much to be achievable by an organized teacher. It did not interfere terribly with developmental skill-building, creative exploration, or concert preparation.
Unfortunately, I have met many colleagues who tell a different story about their districts. In some cases, districts will require teachers to assess every state or national music standard every grading period, and do multiple assessments for one standard (pre, mid, post). This can amount to 50+ assessments in a year, for each class. If we go back to our 50 minutes per week estimate, these teachers see their students 1800 minutes in a year (10/day x 180 days), and must test every 36 minutes, which would be every single music period!!!
No wonder some of these teachers are ready to quit. No wonder they don’t want to do creative, in-depth, student-centered, engaging lessons that take months to develop, despite the fact that every evidence suggests this is what students crave and need from a music program. They are literally forced to turn music class into a boring drill and test class.
One reason I started Unison.School was to help teachers quickly assess their students. The rhythm assessment that I created there can be quickly taken by students with access to any device: tablet, laptop, or desktop. Teachers can rotate students back to a few devices while continuing instruction, or bring in a class set of devices and test everyone within a 5-10 minute window. Students enjoy the “game” of the test, and class continues on quickly. Teachers have access to all the scores without typing or writing down rapidly as the students work.
But even with digital solutions like mine, testing every day in music class is completely inappropriate and unwarranted. We must establish some sanity around the amount of time spent assessing compared to instructional time. Even the U.S. Department of Education recognizes this. According to their Testing Action Plan from 2015, they state that standardized testing should be no more than 2% of instructional time. Even though this refers to state-mandated standardized tests, the number 2% is the only guide I can find to refer to any assessments, and I think it’s a good start. Obviously, informal formative assessment happens minute-by-minute in the music classroom and elsewhere. I am not suggesting this should stop. Rather, we should limit assessments that interrupt instruction to a reasonable percentage of class time, say 2-5%.
If you are in a district that is struggling with this issue, I would love to hear from you, and please feel free to share my thoughts with your administrators (I’d even be happy to contact them myself if you want). We must all fight for sanity and a quality music education in our school programs.