Reflection on Formative Assessment

In the past several days, I have been reading a bit of Shawn Cornally's blog, ThinkThank Thunk. I began with his second post back in February 2010 on Standards-Based Grading. At the time, Shawn was a math/science/programming teacher at Solon High School in Iowa. He experimented with implementing standards-based grading practices in his classrooms and blogged quite a bit about his experiences. He has several articles about standards-based grading, calculus, physics, and a variety of other topics. Shawn is now the Headmaster of Iowa Big Ideas Group, a competency based high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Many of Shawn's post on Standards-Based Grading got me thinking about what I am currently doing in my Instrumental Music 10 course (10th Grade Band), Music Fundamentals course (non-AP Music Theory), and brass lessons in terms of implementation of standards-based practices. As we approach the summer and a time to plan out what next year will look like, I wanted to lay out my thinking.

Current Practices I have already written quite a bit about our use of Infinite Campus, SmartMusic, and Google Drive. I've also discussed our potential plans of using JumpRope as an assessment tool in the future. As part of the curriculum review our K-12 Music PLC went through prior to our district splitting into a two high school feeder system, the following standards were developed for 6-12 Instrumental Music:

Students will be able to:

  • Rhythm/Beat/Meter Competency

    • Dictate a performed rhythm (play and/or write)

    • Perform a given rhythm with characteristic tone

    • Identify a performed rhythm

    • Identify meter

    • Maintain a consistent pulse

    • Breathe in time with proper technique and in musically appropriate places in performance

  • Tonal Literacy

    • Perform a major scale with characteristic tone

    • Identify "do" through key signatures

    • Identify tonal centers

    • Dictate a performed tonal sequence

    • Perform a tonal sequence with characteristic tone

    • Identify a performed tonal sequence

    • Identify a harmonic sequence

    • Perform a harmonic sequence with characteristic tone

  • Expression/Performance

    • Identify, label, define, and perform dynamics, articulation, and tempo markings

    • Make expressive decisions based on historical context, genre, and style

  • Ensemble

    • Apply learned musical performance, literacy, and critical thinking skills to the music- making process with various sizes of ensembles

These standards currently look exactly the same for each grade of instrumental music from 6th-12th grade. As a 6-12 Instrumental Music PLC, we are working through the process of designing formative and summative assessments for each of these standards. Currently, we use SmartMusic exercises in a variety of key signatures to summatively assess our students. We are looking to expand our knowledge of what our students know and are able to do so we can better move them along the path to becoming independent musicians.

This summer will see a lot of work from us on this document:

6-12 Power Standards Google Doc

6-12 Power Standards Google Doc

You can see we have begun filling in things we would like to assess (what); the next question to answer is the how. This is where my reading from Shawn Cornally's blog comes in to play.

Grades as Communication, not Compensation In my mind, this is one of the biggest drivers behind the transition to standards-based grading. In a traditional grading system, a student's overall academic grade is determined by the points they earn through completing assignments and taking tests and quizzes. Our grade book will contain entries like: Quiz 1 - 6/10. What does this communicate to us? More importantly, what does it communicate to our students and parents? Do they know what they do not know? Do they know what they are not able to do? Do we?

Shawn Cornally begins a blog post about using SBG in Math with the following quote:

Does my gradebook mean anything to anyone other than myself? How can I use assessment tools to better communicate with students about their progress? Finally, can we use assessment to empower students to control their own formative behavior in the classroom?

Our current grade book includes Assessments (summative grades for assessing SmartMusic assignments), Wind/Percussion Lessons (formative grades for providing feedback on how students are doing in their lessons; based off the Wind and Percussion Rubrics), and Lessons (formative means of reporting the number of lessons attended). Because Infinite Campus is so cumbersome, we use Google Docs to help calculate the numbers that appear in the students' overall academic grades.

How can we better communicate as opposed to compensate with our grades? We want our students to be able to look at Infinite Campus (or some other resource) and understand where there strengths and weaknesses lie. What do they need to improve upon and practice more? We are looking at a few different solutions:

  • JumpRope as an assessment tool - JumpRope allows us to link assessments to multiple standards much more fluently than Infinite Campus. We need to figure out how to communicate the information to students and parents.

  • ActiveGrade as an assessment tool - ActiveGrade is recommended by Shawn Cornally as an SBG grade book. It allows us to link assessments to multiple standards like JumpRope, as well as allows parent/student login to see the feedback we input.

  • Infinite Campus - I am on our district's subcommittee for Infinite Campus (part of the Standards-Based Grading & Reporting Committee). A new version is coming our way this summer with some new features that may allow us to better implement this feedback.

Using Formative Assessment for Feedback Rewinding back up to the Power Standards document above, I want to better formatively assess a lot of those skills for which we are currently not providing feedback. Shawn Cornally wrote a great blog post on feedback. It really got me thinking about how I can use this in both my rehearsal and my Music Theory course.

We have small whiteboards with markers and erasers for our music classes. They are blank on one side. The opposite side has a grand staff and two octaves of a piano keyboard. This could be an excellent way to quickly assess how well students can do a wide variety of the skills listed in our power standards. I could also do this with the small pads of paper we have with a grand staff and a few blanks. The most important piece of this puzzle is that I can give quick and accurate feedback to all the students.

We hung very large posters of our Wind and Percussion Rubrics in each of the rehearsal and practice rooms in each of the three buildings in which we teach. We use this rubric to record data for lessons as well as assess SmartMusic assignments. I need to do a better job of communicating this feedback to the students.

In my Music Fundamentals course, I want to truly transition to a culture of constant formative feedback.  Shawn Cornally talks about this in his post: Standards-Based Grading” != “Retesting. I experimented with this slightly this year, but want to be better about consciously keeping track of what my students know and are able to do and providing them better feedback with how they are able to do it.

Quotes from ThinkThankThunk "Do athletes get medals for work outs? Musicians applause for rehearsal? Then why should students get ‘points’ for practice?"

"Shouldn’t students see the necessity for homework (as practice) because that which is done/assessed in class requires practice to master? Why are you assigning it and taking the immense amount of time to grade it, if it’s not showing up later?"

"Punishing only produces changes in behavior when the punished is in the presence of the punisher."

I highly encourage you to check out his blog and see his thoughts on standards-based grading and competency-based education.


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.