RPG Grading

I am taking a break from my regularly scheduled blogging about my Jazz and Popular Arranging class to discuss something that came up in a conversation with a colleague—RPG grading. In Ankeny, our fifth grade band directors used Band Karate (example from Olathe Public Schools) as an extrinsic motivator for student practice. Our 6–12 Vertical PLC discussed several different ways of trying to replicate that system in a different form, but we ultimately never decided on anything before I moved to Virginia. A few days ago, my colleague, Nick Covington, and I were discussing proficiency scales when this concept of RPG Grading came up again. Here is an edited synopsis of our conversation that occurred via Twitter DMs:


@CovingtonAHS: (Discussing work being done on the last days of school without students.) My only "homework" between now and June 4th is I have to make a proficiency scale.

(We were both discussing the need for an Advanced category in a proficiency scale. If our goal is to have all students meet the standard, why is an advanced category necessary?)

@CovingtonAHS: I like what Aaron Blackwelder does, he doesn't even show kids anything other than the highest level for their reflections and self-assessments of writing. It's the whole idea of the one-point rubric. Give kids a path to meet the criteria, support them when they aren't there yet, but work to get them there. Call it an A, call it whatever, and be done. Its kind of what I did with Econ standards this semester: don't report anything until they get it, then report the P. Ps in all the things = A. Let's make this simple.

@BurtonHable: Excellent idea from both you and Aaron. So very simple. Did you get rid of the Ms? (Infinite Campus allows teachers to mark assignments as “M” for Missing. It then calculates the M as a 0, drastically affecting overall grades).

@CovingtonAHS: Yes. It was so nice because the "assignment" was the standard. So some kids had evidence from this thing, some had it from another thing, others still another...

@BurtonHable: Yeah. That’s similar to how our grade book was setup. We had assignments for each standard at each grading period so we could show progress.

(Here there was a brief digression about training dogs, as my 5 month old cockapoo, Toby, was learning to deal with me practicing trombone. Then we took another tangent towards talking about my research interests for my dissertation, which will be coming in another post.)

@CovingtonAHS: (Brought the conversation back around by citing his own Twitter thread). I'm going to put the advanced as doing some college level microeconomics. Like game theory (https://www.khanacademy.org/economics-finance-domain/microeconomics/nash-equilibrium-tutorial).

Meeting will be: Given changes to supply & demand and shifts in determinants, I can manipulate and shift a supply & demand curve.

Advanced: Given a game theory scenario, justify the potential solutions and describe the Nash equilibrium.

@CovingtonAHS: What would "advanced" look like in a music context or band context? Composition?

@BurtonHable: Check out the National Core Arts Standards for High School Band/Orchestra/Choir. Proficiency scales developed by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, and approved by the Fine Arts Team at the Iowa Department of Education.

(We then went in to some in-depth analysis of these standards, which is not pertinent to this post about RPG Grading. Here is the part of the conversation where we get there).

@CovingtonAHS: I wonder, too, if you were to just take a successful musician, someone in industry or otherwise, and run them against this rubric what you'd get. How well do the criteria track with the characteristics of successful musicians? Who would make it through? Or is this like a way of selecting for future band teachers?

@BurtonHable: There are certainly skills in there you would need as a band director, but not every student in band needs all those skills.

@CovingtonAHS: It'd be like in those old school RPGs if EVERY character needed to have their abilities maxed out

Artwork by  Sasha-arctic  on  deviant art

@CovingtonAHS: That would be a freaking AMAZING way to track progress!

@BurtonHable: We have actually thought about that for younger kids—leveling up, so to speak.

@CovingtonAHS: That would be awesome! The "report card" could be like their RPG profile with their ability levels. It's just so much more intuitive. I could retool the Evidence Journal EASILY to look more like that

@CovingtonAHS: Or build in a summary page that has those all lined upLike this, or similar

Evidence Summary.png

@CovingtonAHS: So the portfolio includes artifacts that check off all those boxes, not necessarily 20 different artifacts, most assessments or artifacts would hit multiples. Goal is to have all of them met. You could put an artifact in there, call it Artifact A, then write the letter in the boxes for the objectives it hits: put an A in all the ones that A meets. B for all the ones B meets, etc.

(I should break at this point and mention Nick’s excellent writing for the Human Restoration Project. Go check out what he is doing!)

@BurtonHable: Yeah. I like it! For our younger grades, the rows would be things like Rhythm, Tonal Center, Articulation, Dynamics. The columns would be increasing levels of difficulty for example, in rhythm, their books start out in quarter, half, and whole notes. So easy to "level up" pretty early on. Then it introduces 8th notes. Bam. New level. Tonal center could be the same thing. Concert Bb. Concert Eb. Concert F. Concert Ab. Dynamics would be like loud vs. soft. Adding a medium. Adding an even softer/louder. Basically just how many different dynamics can you demonstrate?

@CovingtonAHS: That's awesome! “How can I level up my rhythm?” is a great way of thinking. “Here are some opportunities to level up your dynamics....” The power is not in reporting and recording it all on the proficiency scale. The power is in communicating it to students and getting them to act on it.


In my conversation with Nick, I referenced Rhythm, Tonal Center, Articulation, and Dynamics as “stats” to be “leveled up” by our music students. My graphic design skills aren’t at all like those of the artists from DeviantArt I shared above, but I was thinking something like this:

Example of RPG grading in early instrumental music education

Example of RPG grading in early instrumental music education

I am not sure how Ankeny’s fifth grade band directors are using Band Karate to earn each of the belts, but I think the sixth and possibly seventh grade students would be interested in this RPG idea of “leveling up” through the different skills we want them to learn. I am now thinking of how this correlates to my proposed standards which I have included below. Some would adapt well to this RPG concept, whereas others would take some work.

proposed standards from  More Thinking about standards

proposed standards from More Thinking about standards

As I do not currently have a classroom of my own to implement this RPG concept, this post will have to remain a thought experiment until later. I look forward to the day when I could actually put something like this in to practice!

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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.