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Assessment: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly PART II

As I have reflected upon my experiences with my recent judging, I have been struck by how different the experiences of each ensemble might be at Assessment.

For those of you who did not read Part I, here is a quick recap:

I was an assessment judge recently and experienced a roller coaster of emotions.  I watched a ton of schools and thoroughly enjoyed my experience for the most part.  But there were definitely moments that I really struggled with.  There were three schools that really stuck out to me.  The first was this super wealthy school which gave a stellar performance with stellar instruments and a stellar conductor.  It was good.  Definitely.  Then, I watched a mediocre school with a teacher who was clearly lost and it was just bad.  All of the judges agreed that it was sad because the students had so much potential, but the teacher just didn’t know what to expect.  (BTW – We have ALL been in situations like this… I don’t want to judge… But I was hired specifically to do just that… So…).  The third school that really struck me was the most frustrating.  It was a group of students from a poor school.  So many of their issues had to do with crummy instruments, an unfortunate lacking of a bass player, and just poor circumstances.  This was really ugly and frustrating.  And so… I decided to write about it…

So, here are what I believe to be the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly about Assessment in general.

good bad ugly of assessment

The Good:

  1. Students are Most Motivated at this time of year – There is something

  2. Superior can be extremely motivating – If an ensemble does get a superior, it can be an incredible experience for the students and can motivate them for future performances.

  3. Assessment can be an amazing bonding experience – In my most recent Assessment season, my orchestra students worked extremely hard on a full Level VI program. And in spite of waaaaaaay too many snow days, they managed to pull off straight superiors.  Do you see how proud they were???  I try not to put too much emphasis on Assessment.  But… their reaction when I told them is priceless.  And this set us up beautifully to have an incredible rest of the year.  They were so proud.  And this has set a new precedent for my program.

  1. Watching others perform can also be an incredible experience! Assessment is the only place in which you can watch back to back to back performances of school-age musicians.  I cannot recommend enough having your students watch others on your assessment weekend.  It is a powerful experience and provides them with inspiration, goals, and a better idea of what they can accomplish and what they have already accomplished.

The Bad:

  1. Ivory Tower Judges – Luckily, I have rarely worked with such judges, but we know they are out there. I want to be clear about what I think an Ivory Tower judge is here, because I think there are many different kinds:

  2. College Professor who has not been back in the classroom with regular students in twenty some years…. I don’t care how much research they have done about music education, if they haven’t been around these kinds of students in twenty years, we have a problem….

  3. Healthy Wealthy Teachers who have not been back in a NORMAL CLASSROOM in years… These teachers have an unrealistic expectation of performance and do not understand the background and issues that ensembles from normal schools might be going through

  4. The All-Dreaded Professional Musician who has never worked with public school musicians… Why even bring them in?!?!?! I love my pro friends, but they rarely understand the workings of a public school in the way that people with educational experience have.

  5. Here are my biggest problems with our Ivory Tower Judges…

  6. Instrumentation – Rarely do they understand when an ensemble has an unbalanced instrumentation. I have heard too many Ivory Tower judges give low scores because a group didn’t have enough violists, or didn’t have a bass player.  I need to write a WHOLE BLOG POST ON THIS ONE!!!!  Because I have so many issues with giving a low score because a teacher doesn’t have a bassist… I get it that they don’t sound as good.  That makes sense, HOWEVER, it is not fair to penalize the students for not having a bass player…

  7. Unrealistic Expectations – Oftentimes, Ivory Tower Judges have expectations that are so high that nobody can reach them. We recently had one such judge, who was judging ELEMENTARY KIDS…. This judge only gave ONE SUPERIOR and TWO EXCELLENTS… The rest of the scores were Goods and even Poors.  TO ELEMENTARY STUDENTS….. That, to me is unacceptable.

Elementary Madness
  1. Snapshot in Time – Assessment is ONLY a snapshot in time. And therefore, similar to a standardized test, Assessment only measures approximately 5 minutes in the entire year.  It is hard to accurately measure the success of a program in only 5 minutes.  Actually, I think it is impossible.  And that we need to place much less emphasis on Assessment for this very reason.

  2. Play-It-Safe Mindset – WAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!! This mindset makes me CRAZY!!!!!

  1. So often, I will tell a colleague that I am choosing __________ to play with my students for Assessment because it is going to challenge them and they will almost always say “Assessment is not the time to challenge your kids.”  WHY NOT?!?!?!?!  I could not disagree more!  My students are at their prime at this time of the year.  They are the most motivated, at their highest playing ability within the year, and are practicing more than at any other point.  I will ALWAYS challenge them with Assessment.  We are educators above all else, and we should constantly be encouraging growth, not a sinking into the status quo… UGH!!!!!!! (Too emotional here?  Sorry… I can’t help myself!)

The Ugly:

Economic Disparity

Okay, so if you know me, you know that I am at all times an advocate for my low SES friends.  And unfortunately, the ugly so often deals with the very real inequality that exists within our educational institutions.  Unsurprisingly, assessment is no different.  The economic disparity even within smaller districts cannot be denied, and yet, we are told to judge every single group by the exact same standards…

Eye Roll


Here are a few of my issues with using the same standards for Healthy Wealthy High School A versus Slummin it in the Schools B…

  1. Intonation – Healthy Wealthy High School has greater access to private teachers who will naturally help with intonation, ear training, etc. They have greater access to concert venues and have the resources to listen to high quality music, whereas Slummin’ it in the Schools is likely to have access to private teachers ONLY for the extremely talented and dedicated musicians, which is likely a teeny tiny part of their music program.  Intonation WILL suffer in Slummin’ it in the Schools unless there is a phenomenal teacher there.  And let’s be honest, the phenomenal teachers rarely stay at Slummin’ Schools for very long before they get snatched up by the Healthy Wealthy parents and administration…

  2. Tone Quality – This is where you will probably hear the biggest gaps… Why? Plain and simple, instrument procurement… Healthy Wealthy High School is going to have the financial resources for high quality instrument.  Slummin’ it in the Schools will probably have a slew of donated instruments, discarded from music dropouts who decided they no longer wanted their crummy instruments.

  3. Balance – This is so often an issue with low income schools. Students can’t afford to play the larger instruments for a variety of reasons and it becomes difficult.  Students certainly can’t afford to transport instruments such as the bass.

So, I have ranted, raved, and SHOUTED at you now about Assessment.  And I don’t really have a great solution right now… Except to tell you that we need more judges from the classroom.  We need judges who are familiar with different scenarios and backgrounds, who can recognize a group who is rocking out against all odds.  We need judges who love students, not judges who love the opportunity to lord over them.

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