Nurturing Musical Growth through Assessment

Hi everyone! It's Aileen from Mrs. Miracle's Music Room. A few days ago, I was excited to read Amy Abbott's post about readiness on the Kodaly Corner, as it relates to the PPP (preparation-presentation-practice) process, so I thought I'd piggyback on that to talk further about assessment.

It's wonderful to really reflect on where assessment fits into the PPP process. While assessment could be viewed as the last step in the process, we can also look at it in another way--as being embedded in the process! I remember hearing in my Kodaly training that a concept shouldn't be assessed until it has been presented, and I still agree with that--if we are focusing on summative assessment. Formative assessment, though, can happen throughout preparation, presentation, and practice.

What exactly is formative assessment? While summative assessment is the traditional approach to assessing--taking an assessment down for a grade to report--formative assessment is used to help adapt instruction and show the educator what the students still need before moving on. It can help gauge their readiness, just like Amy blogged about! Thinking about and planning for formative assessments can help keep teachers on the right track, giving us the information we need to know if students are ready to be summatively assessed, and if they are ready to move on. You can also use formative assessment to see if students are ready for presentation, to actually have data about how many of them can identify the concept and are ready for the "real" name.

Here is an example...with ta and ti-ti, I do a lot of beat and rhythm work in early preparation (just as Amy blogged about), and then move to using long for "ta" and short-short for "ti-ti" (notated like ____ and _ _ ). How do I know they are ready for ta and ti-ti? One way is through popsicle stick dictation. After working with popsicle sticks on the board as a class, I hand students bags of their own popsicle sticks and have them notate on their own. Here is a picture of the pattern "long long short-short long" (otherwise known as "ta ta ti-ti ta.")

For these bags, I used regular popsicle sticks and popsicle sticks cut in half...but I made these my first year of teaching, and they have since come out with these awesome half popsicle sticks! (Click the picture below to buy them on Amazon.) You can also use foam hearts from Joann's instead of laminated hearts if you'd like.

After students get their popsicle sticks and hearts, I have them do some guided writing, a step I learned about from my Level III teacher Joan Litman (who, by the way, is an amazing presenter! If you can see anything presented by her, you should!) I will say the words aloud, like "short-short long short-short long," and they have to notate that. It seems easy, and you may be thinking, "Why would I tell them the names of the rhythms? Why not just have them dictate it?"

Well, as some of you have experienced, some kids need that step. It's great for improving their musical memory. Studies have also shown that if you start with easier questions and work towards more difficult questions, students will perform better than they would otherwise. So I usually take these steps:
  • A couple guided writing patterns, in which students have to write what you say
  • A few simple patterns that students have to dictate after you clap them (like ta ta ta ta, ta ta ti-ti ta, and ti-ti ta ti-ti ta)
  • A more difficult pattern that students have to dictate after you clap it (like ta ti-ti ta ta).
As I am giving this assessment, I write down the students who are absent, and then circulate around the room, looking for students who are dictating incorrectly. Next to those students' names, I write a minus, so that after the assessment, if I see four minuses next to a student's name, I know he/she is really struggling, and if I see no minuses, I know he/she has it. I then calculate data about how many students are ready for presentation (those students who answered all questions correctly or only answered one question incorrectly.)

This assessment isn't at the end of my PPP process, because it's formative, and it's used to guide my instruction. However, I could use this same process once students know ta and ti-ti and use it as a summative assessment, by having students make ta and ti-ti with their popsicle sticks instead of long and short-short, like this:

Now let's look at formative assessment with teaching sol and mi. There are many things we want students to be able to do while we are practicing sol and mi to make sure they are ready to move onto la, from reading patterns, to writing patterns, to audiating patterns, and more! One of my favorite ways to assess melodic audiation is to simply play a pattern with sol and mi on the recorder and have students sing back with sol and mi, with hand signs. It can be a quick transition from one song to the next (starting with a pattern from one song and ending with a pattern from another song.) Can the majority of the class sing back the pattern correctly, even if you do a tricky pattern like sol mi mi sol?

Games are a great way to engage students while assessing them. Here are a couple freebies for assessing sol-mi:

This fun game assesses both aural and visual understanding of sol and mi (click on the picture to download the freebie by Linda McPherson!)

And this freebie by me assesses students' transfer from stick notation to staff notation (just click on the picture to download it)! 

With these games, students are having fun, but I am getting valuable information about each student's melodic understanding. Can they hear melodic patterns and understand what they should look like on the staff? Can they transfer their understanding of steps and skips with stick notation to the staff? These games and activities can be written right into your concept plan, so that you can evaluate if you have to do more practice before moving on, or if there are individual students who need some one-on-one help.

Almost anything you do with your students could be used as a formative assessment, whether it be rhythmic writing, melodic writing, singing, improvisation, rhythmic reading, staff work, and so on! It doesn't matter whether or not you have to report grades or not--formative assessment can be used purely to adapt instruction and nurture each child's musical growth.

Need more ideas for assessment? Check out these posts.

Questions or comments? Please leave them below, and thanks for reading!


  1. Great post Aileen!!! I'm so glad you talked about formative and summative assessment and how they play throughout the PPP process and with the readiness step too!

  2. This is probably a silly question--but I've always many assessment questions should you use when you are gathering information? Is there a 'high' and 'low' end as far as how many questions to use? Thank you!

    1. Hi Debbie! So sorry, just realized I never responded to this! I usually have at least 5 questions so I have enough evidence to know if students understand or are still struggling. I usually like to have a bit more than that, though.

  3. Excellent post Aileen! I think too often teachers jump to the summative assessment without taking the step to assess readiness through formative assessment. Then the teacher is left scratching their head wondering what went wrong, as too many students did not score well. Assessment and data should inform the curriculum. I think too few music educators are taught how to do this effectively. Thank you for sharing this important step. I will be sharing it with my maternity leave sub for the Fall!

  4. Great post on assessment. When I was working on my masters, I took a hard look at my own methods of both assessments. I often felt that formative assessment came naturally in my classroom (I use a method similar to you with minus and plus marks). Summative assessment is definitely an area I struggle with, both ideologically and in practice. Summative assessment is often described as having high-stakes, which I think is why I often take issue with it. Though, in today's educational climate, summative assessments are the emphasis, whether proctored by the state or the teacher. What are your thoughts?

    1. Hi Jennifer! Sorry I'm just now responding...didn't realize I hadn't replied to this! I understand why you struggle with it...I definitely don't want to turn anyone off to music because I've given them a less-than-perfect grade in music. But I do feel like it gives the parents not only a snapshot of how students are doing in my class, but what we are doing in my class. It also helps me know when it's time to move on to the next concept. Sometimes I feel like I stay too long with one concept when they are ready to move on!


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