In which I muse on formative assessment whilst at Schiphol Airport

I’m writing this Blog entry at Schiphol Airport. I’ve been in the Netherlands for a few days, as a guest of the Royal Dutch Conservatory in the Hague where I have been talking about assessment. This has been interesting, as it’s made me think about teaching and learning, assessment, music education, and all sorts of the normal things that bother me, but from a completely different perspective. So, what do I have to say about it?

Well, what I have been thinking about is, what do words mean? Our colleagues in the RDC are fluent in English, so it wasn’t that which was a problem. Indeed, at the RDC all postgraduate courses are conducted in English anyway, so they are speaking and writing in English every day, and in a way that makes my feeble attempt at Language seem very poor. No, what I have been thinking about is the baggage that words carry with them. I wrote about the multiple meanings of words here, what I have been interested in for the past few days is all of the hidden weight, meanings, implications, and linkages which words carry with them, for which I am using the term “baggage”. In semiotics the much more technical terms “denotation” and “connotation” are employed. I don’t want to get into a discussion of Barthes and Saussure, so I’m going to stick with “baggage”!

The words have been bothering are (obviously) assessment-based words. Let me start digging with a really tricky one (or two!): Formative Assessment. Ouch! I have said for a long time that music teachers were doing formative assessment before it had been invented. But our cousins across the pond in the USA don’t always see it like this. Consider this:

“Currently being reshaped in today’s No Child Left Behind environment is the term formative assessment. It now is at risk of being understood merely as testing that is done often. In some extremes, it is little more than frequent summative assessment: testing that doesn’t originate in the classroom, that creates another mark for the grade book or a set of data to be analyzed, and that, in theory, tracks individual and/or group progress toward the ultimate summative test—the high-stakes test that quantifies the school’s adequate yearly progress.” (Source here)

Talking to our Dutch colleagues, they had absorbed our UK, view, but were also aware of the American. I think in the UK this is also sometimes the case, and the idea of formative assessment being, as I heard a teacher say “the test before the real test”, is one I come across sometimes. Which means that real formative assessment, the one we’ve been doing for years, is still endangered. I thought we’d cracked this, but I am hearing more and more about teachers having to ‘record’ their formative assessments, in some cases by giving them a grade (or level). The real formative assessments that make a difference to pupil music making and learning, the “try it like this”, “how about holding your beater like this”, “have you though of” comments are now submerged by teachers having to make a record of them. Or employ the dreadful “verbal feedback given” stamps!

But back to our Dutch colleagues, they wondered how they could model formative assessment with their teacher training students in such a way that the students would then use them in a similar way with their pupils. In order to do this, they need to be clear about what formative assessment is. My question for the UK is, do we do this? Do SLTs use formative feedback with their staff? Do teachers use formative assessment and feedback with their ITE students? Do ITE students use formative assessment and feedback with their students?

The other aspect of the baggage of assessment words was that of value. I have a differentiated understanding of assessment and evaluation, but trying to explain this simply is a real problem! When I was in Chile last year, I discovered that both words translate as the single term evaluar, so nuanced meanings are rendered even more tricky then! But the bit of ‘evaluate’ that I have been thinking about is that of ‘placing value on’. Ally Daubney and I have been thinking about this with teachers, and I think it is really interesting. What do we value, how do we evaluate what we value, and then how do we assess it? The old saying “do we assess what we value, or do we value what we assess” is central here.

Right, my Dutch burger (don’t ask!) is ready, so I’m off to stuff my face.

Baggage, and meaning. Dank u well

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