I was asked recently to comment on whether we are assessing too much: a very interesting area for debate in music education.
I would like to make a contribution from a very practical point of view, leaving serious theoretical propositioning and statistical analysis to others more qualified in those areas.
I was representative in Madrid of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) from 1997 to 2004, when the ABRSM exams were relatively unknown here. On the many occasions when I acted as steward at examination centres I often used to ask the candidates three questions:
Did you practise more than usual in the weeks approaching the exam?
Did your playing/singing improve as you practised more?
Have you enjoyed playing/singing more as you have got better?
The answer to all three questions was invariably positive.
More recently, when we introduced Rockschool exams at school parents commented that their son/daughter’s preparation on electric guitar had become more disciplined, more focused and more productive in the weeks leading up to the exam.
The crucial question here is that the candidates found the exam process to be worthwhile and positive, not a trauma to be endured. In these cases there was a genuine sense of assessment for learning, with a structure over time that the candidates themselves clearly understood and bought into.
What are features common to these experiences, involving as they do very different styles of music?
Ownership: in most cases the candidates had a part in deciding whether or not to sign up for the exam;
Integrity: candidates are confident they will receive a fair and objective assessment of their performance;
Positive outcomes: for well prepared candidates exams with the ABRSM or Rockschool provide positive feedback, recognition within school and beyond, and a platform for future success.
Were these candidates assessed too much? Apparently not, as a high proportion of them came back for more in following years.
A full debate on this question will be found in the February 2011 issue of Music Teacher magazine, edited by Christopher Walters: