Uses and purposes of assessment in music education

In academic discussions of assessment in the literature, we distinguish between uses and purposes of assessment (indeed, in my assessment book (Fautley, 2010) I devote a section to this). To put it probably over-simply, for the sake of this blog, purposes of assessment date back the TGAT report of 1988 (TGAT, 1988), where they defined four purposes for assessment:

Summative: For the recording of the overall achievement of the student in a systematic way.
Formative: So that the positive achievements of a pupil may be recognised and discussed and the appropriate next steps may be planned.
Evaluative: By means of which some aspects of the work of a school, an LEA or other discrete part of the education service can be assessed and/or reported upon.
Diagnostic: Through which learning difficulties may be scrutinised and classified so that appropriate remedial help and guidance can be provided. (From TGAT 1988, para 23)

But the term uses and purposes has fallen into disrepair somewhat recently, for reasons Newton observes:

1) the term ‘assessment purpose’ can be interpreted in a variety of different ways
2) the uses to which assessment results are put are often categorized misleadingly. (Newton, 2007, p. 149)

My concern in this blog is to discuss what I am hearing increasingly when talking with teachers, and this is a jump straight from discussing assessment to talking about two other things in the same breath:

  1. Tracking
  2. Target setting

And, often, a third creeps in not long after:

3. Reporting

The reason that I am concerned about this is that I feel that what is often (but, to be fair, not always) missing from these discussions is thinking about marking and grading. Let me try and unpick this.

What I think is happening is that school assessment systems are based on marking, the school assessment policy tells teachers how to mark (or grade). What the music teachers (and other subjects too, I guess, but I have no evidence for this) then have to do is to work out how to mark pupil work in music according to this system. What I think (and happy to be corrected) is that the ‘missing link’ is getting from pupil work to marked grade. This seems obvious, but is, I think very hard. It involved scaled marking schemes, grades, and the implementation of professional judgements. There are a number of ways of doing this, and I’ll doubtless write about these in the future, but just to whet your appetite, here are a few that are commonly used:

  • Criterion based: where assessment criteria are produced, and pupils work graded accordingly
  • Impression based: basically where a more informed version of ‘think of a number’ is used
  • Holistic assessment: A more organised version of the above, where a single overall grade is given (but may also result from aggregating atomised marks)
  • Assessment by accretion: where the more ‘stuff’ a child can do, the higher the grade (NB often ignore quality!)
  • Consensual Assessment: (see Amabile, 1983, 1996 for details) where a number of experts make conjoint decisions
  • Comparative assessment: where pupils are assessed “…how did this student do compared to the class norm” (Harper & O’Brien, 2012, p. 109)
  • NC level based: (actually a form of criterion based, but still…) where the wording of an NC level is bent to fit the task, and sublevelled when appropriate

There’s more, but this will do for the moment. Now, the bit I am concerned with, as I said above, is how do we get from the music to the grade/mark? And in order to address this question, we need to return to where we began, what use will this information be put to? To put it very simply, if our salaries depend on grades, we will assess somewhat differently to if we want to know how to help the kids play the B7 chord better on the guitar.

As I said, more on this to follow anon!

Post-publication Addendum:
John Kelleher rightly draws my attention to the differences between marking and grading as separate activities, and he is quite correct so to do. He discusses this issue here.


Amabile, T. (1983). The Social Psychology of Creativity. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in Context. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Fautley, M. (2010) Assessment in Music Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Harper, J., & O’Brien, K. (2012). Student-Driven Learning: Small. Medium, and Big Steps to Engage and Empower Students, Markham, Ontario: Pembroke Publishers.
Newton, P. E. (2007). Clarifying the purposes of educational assessment. Assessment in Education, 14(2), 149-170.
TGAT. (1988). Task group on Assessment and Testing: A report: London: DES.

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