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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Assessment and Coffee

Those nice people over at MusicMark have made available a piece I wrote for secondary school music teachers wherein I reflect on one of the common issues with assessment I am asked about, that of progression. In it I respond by inviting teachers to think on these three questions:

1. What are the pupils learning?
2. What does progression look and sound like in this?
3. Are you asking about progression, or proving progression?

The full piece is available here.


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Rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic


I’m guessing that someone had the job of being in charge of deckchairs on the Titanic. I presume that they spent their days and nights dreaming up ever more complex ways of arranging the deckchairs in patterns, and then occupied themselves for hours doing that. And maybe, even as the ship was sinking, they were concerned that their deckchair arrangements were being spoiled. Maybe they were just too busy rearranging them to notice the bloody great iceberg bearing down on them.

This long metaphor is how I view some parts of music education at the moment. Many music services (MSs) don’t seem to have realised that when Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) are normal for all secondary schools, they (MSs) may not be required. At the moment we have a situation where MSs don’t aggressively encroach into each other’s territory too often. Can you see MATs doing that? We have local continuation routes for music education predicated on the school>local schools>area band (or whatever)>regional band>County band (again, or whatever) model. Can you see aggressive MATs doing that? There will be a <<Insert Name of Trust>>model, where music making is kept within that MAT. Now, this may not a bad model per se, the MATs may genuinely put a lot of effort into their music offer, and, having done so, will want to reap the reward of so doing, but it strikes me as extremely unlikely that they will want to play nicely with other MATs. After all, Tesco don’t cooperate with Asda on how to make their baked beans better, I don’t think?

And this is the iceberg that is looming. (Well, one of them anyway, I actually think there is a whole flotilla of icebergs on the horizon, but that’s another blog!)

So, what’s in it for MATs, MSs, schools, and kids? Well, this is what we don’t know. This isn’t an anti-MAT blog entry, far from it. We do know that some current MATs take a lot of care with their music education offer, and genuinely want to do well by and for their kids, and for these MATs, good music education and high quality music making go hand in hand. We also know some MATs don’t care so much, and are more concerned with other aspects of schooling. Music services could well feel the pinch, with bad MATs forcing a race to the bottom in terms of fees and services, and working regardless of MS and hub boundaries. For schools this will mean being tied into the MAT music offer. Again, this may be no bad thing, but if, say, a MAT music offer is predicated on performing, then a teacher wedded to a composing pedagogy may wish to look elsewhere. And finally kids. Continuation routes contained within a MAT may well be no different to those of a music service or hub, but it is unlikely that both will flourish, with the MS offer likely to suffer most. This might not be an issue in urban contexts, but out in the remote wilds of the Shires, this could entail a lot of travelling.

So where is the deckchair re-arranger? Well, I talk to a number of hubs and MSs, and I hope that they are out there on the bows of the ship looking anxiously ahead with their binoculars. But some aren’t. They are soon going to be spending a lot of time on the poop-deck wondering what it’s like to be struck by an iceberg, leaving them well and truly up a well known creek!

As for music education? Well, I feel that we are entering uncharted waters for many reasons, and we will need all our wits about us. There are icebergs, sure, but bad weather, predators, and Pirates too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and arrange “Abide with me” for deckchairs and noseflute. And don’t bother me, I’m far too busy to ever find myself without a …..

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A blog – but somewhere else!

I’ve written about my personal reflections on the recent (March 2016) Mayor’s summit on music education in London. The blog can be found at the BCU CSPACE (where I work) site, over at:

It was an interesting day, but one which left me with some concerns, as I outline in the entry.


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In which I worry about Vogons

From Douglas Adams “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”:

“People of Earth, your attention please,” a voice said, and it was wonderful. Wonderful perfect quadrophonic sound with distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep.

“This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council,” the voice continued. “As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less that two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.”

The PA died away.

Uncomprehending terror settled on the watching people of Earth. The terror moved slowly through the gathered crowds as if they were iron fillings on a sheet of board and a magnet was moving beneath them. Panic sprouted again, desperate fleeing panic, but there was nowhere to flee to.

Observing this, the Vogons turned on their PA again. It said:

“There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”

I have been wondering recently whether we are seeing the beginning of the end of music education as we know it. Have we all been far too busy worrying about assessment, KS3, new GCSEs, new A levels, break duty, learning walks, book trawls, ‘verbal feedback given’ stamps, to notice that music education is being demolished for the hyperspatial express route which is the EBacc and STEM?

“But it can’t” we say, “we’re far too busy to be got rid of”. And there’s our problem. We are far too busy, and we all have the best interests of the kids at heart. This means that a government who seem to have lately arrived from Philistia (or Vogon!) will have no qualms about demolishing music education.

It’s in the way.

After all, we don’t want subjects that can’t be taught from a script, might involve children and young people thinking for themselves, and may have the potential for making the teensiest bit of noise that might disturb the silence.

I suggest we should be on the lookout for Vogons. They might be nearer than we think.

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An A-Z of music education

Inspired by reading @heymisssmith’s A-Z listing, I thought I’d have a go at writing one for music education, it being New Year’s Eve and all. So, here it is, very personal, partial, humorous at times (maybe?), and very England-based, so apols to all my international chums, as well as apols to all other music ed chums I haven’t had space to mention!


A: Is for assessment, obviously! I expect to be researching and writing more about this during 2016. I think the assessment problem is getting worse, actually!

B: Is for BJME, the British Journal of Music Education, which I co-edit with Regina Murphy. Always worth reading! And Birmingham, for Birmingham City University, (and here, and here), importantly!

C: Is for creativity, and composing. More of both in music lessons, please!

D: Is for dinner time, which in some schools is now so short that rehearsal opportunities have vanished. Shame. Also for Doctoral Students – we need more of these in music ed!

E: Is for Examinations. We know about these in music ed, including how to examine for both skills AND knowledge. ABRSM and Trinity being prime examples. So, rest of edu, ask us, we know (and understand!)

F: Is for John Finney, whose blogs are always worth reading. Also for formative assessment, which in music ed we really understand, whereas loads of others don’t! And also for funding (see also ‘R’), more of this, please!

G: Is for Garageband. Comes with Mac computers, and does an awful lot more that just drag ‘n’ drop composing!

H: Is for Harmony, which we need some of in music education circles at the moment! (As well as those Bach chorale exercises.) Is also for Hubs, which are part of the integrated picture of music ed in England.

I: Is for instruments. More of these, and a wider variety, would be on the wish list of every classroom teacher. Also for the Incorporated Society of Musicians, who have got their finger on the music ed pulse!

J: Is for jamming. More of this too in schools, please.

K: Is for Kodaly, whose music education system is still going strong.

L: Is for London, who have had a great gig with “Teach Through Music”. Now the rest of the country wants a go too!

M: Is for Music – what our subject is all about! Also things starting with ‘Music’, Music Mark, Music Education Council, Music Teacher mag, Music Education Research Journal, and loads of others…M is also for Manchester Metropolitan University, where Jonathan Savage works-his blogs are well worth reading. And also for the late Janet Mills, whose work is still influential.

N: Is for new music, so check out Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s (BCMG) learning pages.

O: Is for Ofsted. In music, they are now our friends, as they currently ‘get’ music ed assessment problems, whereas many SLTs seem to cause them!

P: Is for Chris Philpott, whose thinking and writing are always worth reading. Also for the late John Paynter, who really made us think about music education back in the 70s. ‘P’ is also for ‘Presto Classical‘, the local music shop, where you can still browse printed music and CDs. (Crikey!)

Q: Is for the old spelling of quires (choirs). We don’t have enough of these, or of singing in schools, I think. Often because A and D above have prevented them happening!

R: Is for recording, audio and video. I still don’t think we do enough of this in classroom music lessons, especially when we share it with the kids. And also for research in music ed, which we need a lot more of!

S: Is for Gary Spruce, If Gary’s written it, you should read it! Ditto for Keith Swanwick, whose books still make me think, and often feels like he got to the heart of the issue a while ago.

T: Is for teaching. We need more classroom music teachers. Also for training to teach, especially in HEIs, which is under serious threat at the moment.

U: Is for Universities (see also T), which have seen a number of music teacher ed courses close recently. Also for UCL-IOE, where a lot of thinking about music ed has taken, and still takes place. (Other universities are also available!)

V: Is for volume. Music lessons involve making some of this, often quite a lot. Those designing new schools should be aware of this!

W: Is for ‘we’. Music making is a corporate endeavour, and this too sometimes needs recognising in some schools.

X: “X is for Xylophone. Obviously” As @heymisssmith said, which entry got me started on this whole A-Z thingy! Sadly a good quality xylophone can cost more than an electronic keyboard, and so a class set of them is often beyond the reach of classroom music budgets. Shame, as I think a range of resources is vital.

Y: Is for “why” (sorry!). I often wonder why music education seems to be in the mess it currently is, in some places. Why oh why?

Z: Is for zzzzzzz, if you haven’t fallen asleep yet….but also for the sleep-deprivation that classroom music teachers go through on a daily basis, as the job is always too big for the hours in a day!

I’ll probably think of loads more in the coming hours/days, but this is my stream-of-consciousness version, post Christmas Pud, etc, so, there you go, and a Happy New Year to everyone!

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Video on assessment in music education

This is another ‘instead of a blog entry’ post! The nice people at ‘Teach Through Music’ have made a really interesting video about assessment in music education. It features London music teachers talking about this, as well as some talking head shots of me doing the same. It can be viewed here.

There are so many issues that are raised by the matter of assessment, that I hope this video will help contribute towards the debate.


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Instead of a blog entry – A level composing

A very brief not-a-blog. Today the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM)  published a piece of research by one of my PhD students, Kirsty Devaney, and myself, into music teachers views on the composing components of A-level music. It’s available here. The Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir, has been kind enough to contribute to the executive summary of the paper.

It doesn’t make for jolly reading, as the teachers concerned are generally quite concerned about what is going on.

Anyway, thought I may as well post a link here.

Thanks ISM!

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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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A short blog in which I worry about ‘flightpaths’

I’ve been wondering about ‘flightpaths’ (just google them if you don’t know!) and ‘expected progress’ recently.

Two questions strike me:

  1. Are flightpaths just NC levels by another name?
  2. What progress can we expect? How do we know?

This relates to my ‘journey’s blogs below. If we do know what we expect, are we simply providing a self-fulfilling prophecy, and at the same placing a glass ceiling on attainment?

I am worrying that we are spending so much time tracking to ensure that pupils are on a flightpath we have invented that we may not get the chance to be interesting, exciting and musical en route. Of course, I am happy to be proved wrong, but some of the horror stories I hear from school music teachers don’t fill me with much confidence. Bearing in mind that nationally 93% of kids drop music at the end of KS3, should we be thinking of that as the endpoint of their formal music education? If so, what would a flightpath for this look like? What would the intended learning be?

Finally, would musicality be there in this revised viewpoint?

I said it would be a short blog!

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