Assessment in Band: Cracking the Code

by David Blake

Every school year I deal with concerts, fundraisers, festivals, trips, sectionals, band boosters and other activities related to my job as a band director. The one element of teaching band I have found most challenging is determining my student’s grade.

As a new teacher, I didn’t form much of a system for assessing my students or setting any type of standard for them to reach. If I liked the kid and they played well, they got an A. If I didn’t like them, they got something else. This, of course, didn’t work very well and my students didn’t learn much aside from how to play their festival music.

There are a variety of things to assess in relation to a band student’s grade. Musical and technical ability, knowledge of music history and theory, class participation, concert attendance are the primary categories I try to focus on. Any more than these tend to overload the students.

I have settled on a rubric system to organize these categories and help each student keep track of his/her grade. A rubric is basically a form that spells out all of the elements of a project, or lesson in a step by step way including a number of points assigned to each element. I have modified this for band by listing each element the student needs to complete for his/her grade along with a number of points assigned to that element.

Some might notice that I omitted practice time from the list of assessments. For several years I required my students to fill out a practice log and turn it in twice during each grading period. They were graded based on the amount of practice spent each week.

This practice log made up the majority of their grade and I grew weary of grading them knowing that most came from students who’s parent would sign the log ahead of time and allow their child to fill in any practice times they wanted without verification. I also grew to realize that all my students had to show for their grade was a practice log full of times and signatures without any concrete musical accomplishment.

Needless to say, I do not think practice logs are necessary for assessing student’s progress in band class. By giving them a rubric with specific material to prepare, they will practice as much as they think is necessary to complete the task.

Musical and technical ability covers a wide variety of material to assess. I divide these into technical studies, scales and rhythm studies. Each item in these categories is assigned the same point value. I’m all about keeping the math easy.

Playing tests have always been a debated subject in the band world. A popular method through the years has been to test each student in front of the class. For some students, this works fine. For others, it could be the end of the world. We have all had those students who completely fall apart in this situation.

Playing tests are, however, a great way for me to hear all of my students play individually and get an opportunity to make adjustments to technique, posture, breathing and musical elements of their playing. They also get to interact with me away from the podium.

I have been successful with allowing time for tests at the end of class, during lunch and after school. Students are responsible for coming to me when they have a test prepared. These tests take one or two minutes at the most. This includes time for me to help them improve. Each time a student tests, they are given an appropriate grade and given suggestions for improvement. After additional practice, they are encouraged to come back for a re-test and receive a higher grade.

The key to making all of this work is to establish a point based grade for each student while keeping them motivated to continue working. The bulk of the rubric point total is contained in the “class participation” grade. By assigning more than 50% of the point total to the student’s participation in class they start out ahead of the game. This eliminates the possibility of failing the class.

Including concert attendance in the point total is another way to recognize effort aside from ability and to reward reliability. Every effort should be made to give credit for participation. The most important part of a student’s participation in the band program is their very presence.

The key to any assessment system is to give each student the tools they need for success and to help point them toward succeeding. During this process, we need to keep in mind that band is something our students do for enjoyment. I know that I have succeeded when that enjoyment becomes part of their lives.

David Blake
Director of Bands
Los Cerritos Middle School
Thousand Oaks, CA