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Foundations of our System

"Assessing Music Performance...A Valid System for Measuring Student Achievement and Growth," by Kevin McNulty, Sr, is a new approach to assessing bands, orchestras, and choirs in elementary, based on performance standards rather the rubric-based checklists, busy-work paper exams and otherwise irrelevant measures to assess the desired outcomes of music performance classes.


In his system, McNulty brings over forty years of professional music performance adjudication and established principles of arts evaluation that have their foundation in the competitive performance arena for over fifty years.


The system has as it’s foundation the following core principles:


 1) Music performance is an active art form that is not simply the presentation of musical elements but the human demonstration of abilities and an expression of ideas, beliefs, moods, emotions, and visions, using musical elements.


2) Musical qualities within a composition or performance are proportional, not equivalent. A top-rated performance is not merely the presence of all qualities at maximum levels. It is an expressive performance with musical qualities at appropriate levels as set by the composer, displayed by the performer and is transparent to the listener.


3) The only way to accurately measure the desired outcomes of music performance is through the prism of a music performance teacher’s background and experience as a musician, and not simply against a list of criteria or an extraneous written exam.


4) All music directors must possess and be cognizant of their musical standard for all forms, idioms, and genres of music. They must also possess standards for each instrument or voice. Standards do not simply apply to ultimate performances; they also identify the lowest-level performance ever heard by a director. It follows, then, that standards also imply an average, below average and above average performance - and all gradients of performance in between. Possessing standards and being able to assess against those standards, requires the use of a linear scale designed not only to rate but, more importantly, to rank performances.


5) While other disciplines in schools use rating almost exclusively, rating and ranking are required in music performance evaluation. Ranking not only establishes program standards but also provides distinction, fine-tunes teacher tolerance, provides data for seating and ensemble placement, allows for program measurement, and facilitates the escalation of performance standards year-to-year.


6) Though rubrics can be implemented, they are merely a musical prospectus and are not the primary means to assess the quality of a performance. They are incapable of fully defining achievement in musical performance. They can clarify teacher impressions but are not a substitute for the standards of the evaluator or music director doing assessments.


7) Grading is different from assessing. Assessment measures performance against a musical standard. Grading measures a student’s achievement against benchmarks established for grade levels or ensembles. Benchmarks are natural divisions within the range of achievement by all students in the program or ensemble. They are set for an entire school year based on ensemble or seating auditions at the end of the previous school year.


8) To rate, rank, and eventually grade music performance students, directors must use a system that allows them to move from a subjective synergistic impression to an objective numerical assessment. It must allow the director to experience the expressive aesthetic, realize its significance, perceive technically artistry, and calculate the ranking and rating of each performance. It must be capable of assessing students at all levels.


9) When evaluating student-musicians, directors should react to the overall performance of the student first, to determine a broad impression range of achievement. They then analyze the basis for their reaction, referencing the elements present in the musical performance. They then check for any personal bias, reflect on previous impressions collected over time, and assign an initial raw number to the performance.


10) In the final stage of evaluation, directors narrow their impression range, determine a tentative final number and then place that number on a ranking scale that allows for comparison to other performers. If, through their own cognition, the rating, ranking or number spread to other performers is incorrect, directors must repeat the impression and analysis phase to determine how their impression or analysis was flawed. Once rectified, evaluators return to the comparison step again and set the final number and ranking.


11) Formative skills should also be measured using this system. Written tests are not a substitute for music performance achievement assessment. Formative and summative assessments should only be determined through live performance.


12)  To accommodate students with lower or advanced musical abilities (the talent debate), directors can tailor individualized growth targets to measure achievement from a student’s starting point at the beginning of the year. This individualized assessment strategy aligns with the notion of individualized instruction and is accommodated by ensemble placement and/or part-assignment within an ensemble. The percentages of students who need these accommodations are minimal. They should be designed to facilitate the lower ability student with the goal of achieving their grade level over time. Accelerated students who might exceed the demands of their ensemble can be assigned higher targets through advanced studies.


13) Regardless of the grading system used in a school district (percentage, letter grade, numerical rating), music performance directors can align the proposed numerical scale-based system presented here with any grade reporting system used in their district. The system utilizes a linear scale, divisible by five ranges of achievement. Five levels can overlap any number of grading levels be it a four-year high school or four years of elementary-middle school training.



14) Selection of literature each year should exceed the capabilities of all students based on the assessment of the ensemble at the end of the previous year. This assures student growth and raises program standards over time.


15) Competent music-performance teachers must regularly seek out performances of other school music programs and professional performances outside education in order to expand and better understand the wide range of achievement potential in music performance as it relates to their school district’s current level of achievement.

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