Assessing without levels: TeachTalkMusic Debate

On Saturday 8/2/14 I am leading a discussion at a TeachTalkMusic debate at Music Education Expo 2014 at the Barbican. I have been asked to prepare a briefing paper in advance, on the topic of ‘assessing without levels’. Some of this is synthesised from posts I have made here in this blog, but as it is a briefer form of these, it may be of some interest. So, here is the text of said paper:


Assessing without levels

Briefing paper for Music Education Expo

Martin Fautley

Assessing without levels is something that should be welcomed by music teachers, especially as they have been telling me for years that assessing with levels is problematic! In this session I would like to drill down into some of the issues concerning this, focussing particularly on Key Stage 3. A good place to start is, somewhat perversely, a telling phrase in a recent Ofsted Art & Design report, ‘Making a Mark’, where it was noted that assessment was problematic, as:

“….teachers had prioritized whole-school approaches at the expense of high quality subject specific assessment” (Ofsted, 2012 p.43)

This seems to me to be key for many of the issues in music education too! I have written elsewhere about how music teachers used to be really good at formative assessment:

This will involve the teacher in making musical judgments about musical learning, doing what Swanwick referred to as teaching music musically (Swanwick, 1999); helping pupils realise precisely what the very next steps are that need to be undertaken to make progress. This is not as fearsome as it sounds, and is, I believe, something historically classroom music teachers used to be quite good at, until well-meaning but misinformed school assessment managers told them they were doing it wrong! (Fautley, 2012)

So what we need to do in order to think about assessing without levels is to go back to thinking about what the uses and purposes of the proposed assessments are, and importantly, who they are intended for.

When I talk to music teachers about why they assess, there are four common answers I hear:

i)              to record attainment

ii)             to show progress

iii)           to report to parents

iv)           because I have to (!)

In essence it is the first two of these which are important, the third can arise from assessment data, and the fourth is more of a school imperative (but can be worryingly akin to the art Ofsted observation above).

What assessing without levels is likely to mean is that summative assessment will be needed which is criterion-referenced, and rooted in the study areas that the pupils are working on. This means that teachers will need to think about what it is that the pupils will be learning, what they will be doing, and then

creating assessment criteria, specific for this topic/task/study area, which the pupils will be assessed against. This also provides a backdrop for formative assessment to occur, as the teacher and pupils will be wanting to work, as best as they can, towards these.

Which takes us to the second of the two main areas, that of showing progression. This is much more complex, as musical understanding is built upon a range of musical and non-musical activities:


 (Fautley, 2010)

Progression in all of these is probably likely to develop in a non-linear fashion in individual students, with some aspects developing a lot faster than others.

One thing which is to be hoped is that assessing without levels will mean that the ridiculous situation of pre-determined progression rates to meet spurious targets will no longer be required. Instead we need to ensure that musical progress needs to be considered musically. (We may need to fight for this, as SLTs are likely to try to default to an over-simplistic whole-school progressional model!)

One of the pernicious effects of recent policy and enactment has been to deprofessionalise teachers, and render them into simplistic curriculum deliverers. This has never sat easily with arts teachers, and reclaiming some of the important professional ground which has been lost to this is an important part of developing assessment in music education.

Another important thing we need to consider is that it is being musical which matters the most, and yet this is often the aspect which is assessed least. As Dylan Wiliam observed:

“We start out with the aim of making the important measurable and end up making only the measurable important” (Wiliam, 2001 p.58).

This is something we will need to guard against!

So, here are some questions to consider:

  1. What do we want to assess in music education
    1. Why do want to assess it?
  2. Who is the assessment for?
    1. The pupils?
    2. The teacher?
    3. Parents?
    4. The ‘system’?
  3. What do I want the pupils to learn, what do I want the pupils to do?
    1. How can I construct specific assessment criteria for each of these?
  4. What might an assessment for being musical look (sound?) like?
  5. How important is the role of formative assessment in classroom music?
    1. If it is important, what do I/we need to do to persuade SLTs of this?
  6. Will my school let me assess musically, or will I be forced into a whole-school straitjacket approach?


Fautley, M. (2010) Assessment in Music Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Fautley, M. (2012) Assessment in Classrom Music. Music Teacher, March, 2012, 40-1.

Ofsted (2012) ‘Making a mark: art, craft and design education’. Manchester, Ofsted.

Swanwick, K. (1999) Teaching music musically, London, Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2001) What is wrong with our educational assessment and what can be done about it? Education Review, 15, 1, 57-62.


So, anyone at the Barbican on Saturday, please do come and say hello!

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