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Assessment: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly… Part I

Hello Critical Pedagogy friends!  I am BACK at last!  You might be wondering where in the world I have been, I completed coursework and comps for my PhD just recently, aaaand I might have taken some desperately needed time off of everything.  I am happy to report that I am now refreshed and ready to get back to my #musicedlove work!  So, I have a few thoughts for you today regarding the much-dreaded and incredibly frustrating ASSESSMENT… Dun Dun DUNNNNNNNN


I know… I too dread Assessment like nothing else the entire year.  My experiences with Assessment have gone from getting a III from one judge once upon a time and bawling my eyes out because I thought my world as a music teacher would come crashing down from that rating, to getting many many many II’s, to getting straight I’s on Level VI music in one of the toughest areas in the country.  I have experienced it all… And let me tell you, I still dread Assessment and I still am not 100% sure where I stand on the entire process.  But I would like to share some thoughts with you from the perspective of a student, a leader in front of an ensemble on the podium, as well as thoughts from behind the adjudication table.

Recently, I had the experience of adjudicating a District Orchestra Assessment.  Due to my own mixed experiences with Assessment, I was originally planning to turn down the gig…. Until I realized (being the optimist that I am…) that perhaps I could find ways to improve the experience for myself and others if I sat on the other side as a judge.

So, I carefully packed, selecting outfits that I hoped would convey a sense of equality while maintaining professionalism.  I opted out of wearing suits.  You may think that suits are the very vision of professionalism, but I sometimes think a suit says “I wear this so you know my place, and you know your own place.”  It’s not that I am completely opposed to suits (actually, I haven’t yet decided my thoughts on suits…), but I thought wearing a dress would look less intimidating to the teachers and the students.  Multiple times on this particular weekend, students came up to me complimenting me on my outfits.  I knew then that my dresses were the perfect choice.  The students felt comfortable enough to approach me.  That is always a good sign.

One of my first experiences as a judge was hearing Healthy Wealthy School.  Dressed in concert uniforms (clearly everyone has paid into this system to dress alike), they walked onto stage with an air of pride and sureness seen rarely in high school students.  As they drew their all-wood bows for the first notes, I saw these little green dollar signs floating out of the f-holes.  The tone of their instruments was just lovely.  Depth, resonance, and wealth.  They performed beautifully.  And all of us had no doubt that they had earned a superior score.  It was good.  No questions asked.

Shortly after Healthy Wealthy School was Teacher Don’t Know School.


Dressed in a barrage of inappropriate (but at least all black) attire, they walked on stage in no particular order with a look of determination to show us.  I feel somewhat guilty for writing about this… Because, well, the teacher was just clueless… The kids had terrible posture, they played music at multiple different levels, and the kids seemed so much more into it all than the teacher.  This group broke my heart.  The intonation was terrible, bowings were all over the place, and the kids nearly fell apart.  But man, they were into it…  Such a passionate group of kids.  I felt at this moment that Assessment was really all about the teacher and not the kids at all.  The effort and passion with which they played was beautiful and inspiring to me.  But they didn’t really know what they were doing… Sadly, they got a good from all of us, but this was bad.  No questions asked.

Then came Slummin’ in the Schools.  Dressed in what appeared to be hand-me-down clothing, these high school kids shuffled in with a look of defeat.  There were III’s in their eyes before they even started playing.  The lone cellist pulled out the endpin on his 3/4, bright red cello and looked up to his director with adoration.  The violinists adjusted their sponges and the violist set her instrument on her right new as she awaited judgement.  The conductor raised her arms and the students complied with military precision: instruments up, bows on strings, eyes on her, love in their hearts.  With the first note came the sound of pencils rapidly filling in the box for tone quality.  For, no matter how good these students would play, they were sure to get a C for tone quality.  These instruments can do no better.  The varnish on the viola had been coated with what appeared to be a heavy, resonance-blocking, brown acrylic paint.  The faint sound of metal balls, bounding through hollow plastic balls contrasted with the perfect rhythm of this ensemble.  As the kids played, some of the instruments started going flat from the heat on stage.  Intonation was suffering, another C… As the melody shifted from one section to another, the audiences noticed the significant absence of low strings.  While this ensemble had a large violin section, they had only one violist, one cellist, and no bass.  Balance was sure to receive another C.  This was ugly.  Many questions must be addressed…

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The preceding conversations between judges made my blood boil… “I can’t give a good score when they have no bass…” “I can’t give a good score when intonation was so poor…”  “I can’t give a good score when the tone quality was so scratchy…”  We argued.  None of us gave in…  Our scores were significantly divided.  This was ugly.

Our power as educators, judges, and juries is immense and must never be taken for granted.  The words we speak today may have an impact on the rest of a student’s musical journey.

For more on this topic, follow up next week for PART II


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