Saturday, March 21, 2015

Beyond Performance Assessment

Performance is on my mind lately. Two weekends ago was the high school musical (Legally Blonde) that a neighboring district runs as a co-op program with my school; I serve as assistant director for an old friend and great teacher. This weekend I'm wrapping up my own school's annual variety show (been happening since 1930 and it's a Big Deal). Both productions held auditions way back in December, so this has been a long marathon run of rehearsals and preparation.

I have played trombone in every kind of band that will put up with a trombone player since I was about nine. I've been a church choir director and worked community theater productions of everything from Annie and Sound of Music to Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Chicago.

Point being, I spend a lot of time in the world of performance, and I carry that experience with me into any discussion of performance-based assessment. Yes, they're not exactly the same kind of performance, but I think the parallels are close enough to be instructive.

Performance can be a great measure of achievement and understanding and skill-- or it can be a terrible measure.

Let's consider a high school band director. She always has a performance-based assessment built right into her course, but whether it means anything or not will depend on how she prepares her students for the performance task.

Let's say she programs a march by Henry Fillmore.

In the rehearsal process, she could teach the students about the context of marches during the era of the Big Three composers (Fillmore, Karl King, and John Philip Sousa). She could talk about how musicians made a living (or didn't) in that time period. She could trace Fillmore's own career through live performance into his development of a radio show, which in turn opens up a discussion of how media affect performers and performance, and all of it opens up a discussion of how business considerations affect what works and performers make it into mass media.

If she didn't want to wander down too many side roads, she could focus on technical issues for the musicians. What's an appropriate style for playing marches? How are staccatos and accents played differently than they're played in other styles? For younger musicians, the work might even occasion a discussion of repeat signs and dynamic markings. What sections typically occur in march composition? She could teach them a variety of musical information that would serve them if they ever again play a march.

Or she could teach them just how to play that one march.

This is the problem with performance tasks as a basis for assessment. If you know what the task is going to be before you start (like, say, perform a piece of music that is already completely written down), then you can prepare only and exactly the skills required to complete that task.

There are choirs and even bands in schools across the country where students don't even learn to read music-- they just learn to repeat the notes of particular songs by rote. That's not nothing-- but it's not everything an educational music program can provide or hope to aspire, and it certainly doesn't provide students with much that they can carry away after the concert is over.

Performance based assessment can be excellent; it makes way more sense to have my students write essays that to take tests about how to write essays. But if we aren't careful, we can narrow the breadth and focus of the assessment so tightly that very little true teaching actually occurs in the run-up to the assessment.

Just one more reason that assessment should follow instruction and not the other way around. If I teach first and then design an assessment, I'll come up with an assessment that I think captures the depth and breadth of what my students have learned. If I have the test in front of me before I even start to teach, I'll direct everything toward that final product.

So when I close out a show, especially a school show, I don't just ask if it was a good show. I ask myself if the cast and crew learned something, if they developed and grew in ways that will benefit the next performance they're involved in.

This subheading is an apology because I just realized this will be a longer piece than I thought it would be when I started it.

What I've been talking about is, of course, teaching to the test. It is teaching that has a short, limited trajectory.

What do we teach to if not the test? We've been saying that we should teach to the student. I have another idea.

When we teach a student how to perform just one specific work, one song, one arrangement, one single play, one musical, then we have prepared for a specific moment in time, and once that moment is over, the usefulness, the value, the meaning of that learning is gone.

But when, in the process of preparing a student for a performance, we increase their skill and their knowledge and their technique, we give them a host of skills that they can carry on into life. If I teach a student by rote how to sing the tenor part to "My Wild Irish Rose," that's a skill he'll only ever use if he finds himself in a situation where he wants to sing the tenor part to "My Wild Irish Rose." If I teach him how to read and interpret and appreciate and enjoy music, that will be useful to him until the day he dies. Not only that but he will have the chance to pass those same skills on to other people, so that what he's learned will actually outlive him. I know this because I'm a link in just such a chain, inspired and trained by men and women who made it possible for me to inspire and train others.

When I look back at a production, sometimes the quality of the actual show is not as important as the growth that I saw. The show is not the end of the line, the destination of the performers, but just a stop-and-check point on a larger journey, and it's the trajectory of that larger journey that is far more important than how awesome this particular rest stop turned out.

Though here's the Big Ironic Thing-- by taking this long view, I think we actually produce really good shows. Better than those produced by people who just focus on this performance as the and of the line, the whole purpose.

I like the analogy of a golf swing. Golfers work endlessly on follow-through, because somehow, the way you hit the ball depends a great deal on what you do (and intend to do) after you actually hit the ball.

What do we teach to if we don't teach to the test?

We teach to the possibilities. We teach to the strengths and weaknesses and aspirations that students have for the adults they will one day become. Our teaching is not a short arc that extends from a hand to a dartboard, but a long unending arc, like a rocket launched at the heart of the universe.

Don't teach to the test.

Teach to the future.


  1. Well said--as usual. I love your blogs and am amazed at how you can turn out such consistently high quality, interesting, relevant, and often-funny columns. And on top of that, teach? I'm in awe. Keep up the good--and important--work.

  2. My brother and I were talking about this very thing this morning. I mentioned how distressed I am to be evaluated on the AP Physics test scores of my students. I have always tried to teach for the long-term benefit of my students, and find the focus on the test itself is a short-term goal which can be antithetical to the long view. Many of my students are not "ready" for AP and will not pass the test, but I still want them in my class because I believe I can help them develop those tools that will make them ready to do what they want to do. They may not do well now, but maybe by the time they are taking pre-med physics or working in the RV factory, it will serve them well. If I am really lucky, they may even find the joy and wonder scientists feel in exploring the world.

    I think the focus on the short-term is problematic throughout society, from infrastructure decay to lack of action on environmental issues to the long-term success of business versus quarterly profits.

    Regarding performance in the artistic realm, I would add that throughout my musical performance career, some of the most amazing, sublime moments have occurred in the rehearsals before the performance and have been witnessed only by the other performers involved. So too in the classroom: moments of transcendent insight are often realized in the mundane day-to-day activity of exploring how the world works.

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  4. Peter, I loved what you wrote about your role as teacher is a link stretching from those who taught you to those who are taught by your students. Just contrast the world view of someone like you (and me) to someone who, as you describe, just teaches to the test. It mirrors the view of some CEO's who pursue short term profits at the expense of the company's long term viability.
    Teaching to the test is just short term thinking, and in the end hurts the long term "viability" of the child, IMO.