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Observations from the Field: How the Pandemic Impacted Arts Assessment

Date: 12 August 2021
A child with shoulder-length sandy blond hair sits alone on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed and plays clarinet. The bed is unmade, and the child is wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt and denim jeans and is alone in the room. The child is in the center of the photo, with the clarinet case tossed behind them on the bed and a metal music stand to the left of them. Natural light filters into the room from the left side of the photo and creates a lens flare. Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@sharonmccutcheon?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Sharon McCutcheon</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/student-music?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>

A child with shoulder-length sandy blond hair sits alone on the bottom bunk of a bunk bed and plays clarinet. The bed is unmade, and the child is wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt and denim jeans and is alone in the room. The child is in the center of the photo, with the clarinet case tossed behind them on the bed and a metal music stand to the left of them. Natural light filters into the room from the left side of the photo and creates a lens flare. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the educational landscape dramatically as teachers quickly transitioned to instructing, guiding and assessing in a digital landscape. The realities of assessment practices in the online music classroom are significantly different than in-person classrooms and have caused some teachers to rethink what they want to learn from the assessment process.

In a “normal” year, music education assessment often includes performance tasks, assessed both individually and in a group setting. Elementary school music students share materials frequently. Teachers typically administer summative assessments in a classroom setting and often handwrite musical notation and symbolic notation. However, most music teachers know their students’ musical development without formalized tracking because of the time spent interacting in the classroom.

That assessment strategy changed drastically in a virtual classroom. Even when students returned to school, shared materials were no longer an option as teachers worked to provide minimal touch points within the school day. Teachers needed to find new and creative ways to assess student growth without the “normal,” frequent and informal checks for understanding that are so common in a music classroom.

In the spring of 2021, I went straight to the source — music teachers across the U.S. — to interview them about their experiences, learnings and takeaways from a year of teaching unlike any other. I initially conducted a video interview project, “Observations from the Field: How the Pandemic has Affected Assessment,” for the 2021 International Symposium of Assessment in Music Education. The project includes firsthand accounts from 18 teachers in a multitude of settings — in-person learning, hybrid models and distance learning — and focuses on how assessment has occurred in the past 12 to 16 months. Covering nine states, four age levels and eight content areas, each teacher’s experience was different, but I noticed common themes through our conversations.

Individual playing skills vs. ensemble playing skills

Numerous teachers pointed out the effect virtual rehearsals had on ensemble skills like intonation, listening and individual confidence in playing. With students spending most of their rehearsal hours in front of a computer screen and playing alone, these music learners lost the skills that would be developed playing and rehearsing in a group. However, students learned new ways to self-assess their growth — from 1:1 coaching with teachers and peers to making audio and video recordings and participating in small group collaboration — and tackled new challenges on their instruments that they might not otherwise have explored.

Changes to the type and frequency of assignments

Many teachers discussed the need to update and change the type of work that was assigned to students throughout the course of the hybrid school year. In some high school band classes, research and interview projects became the new norm. Some teachers scaled back the number of songs taught to their elementary school students. Most often, performance-based (qualitative) assessments took a back seat to more quantitative, music-theory based assessments, which a few teachers reflected was an exciting and welcome change to their curriculum.

Examining the true purpose of assessment

Perhaps more than anything else, teachers emphasized a change in mindset about the true purpose of assessment and evaluation of student growth. One educator shared a story about changing the goal from assessing steady beat — “Can students keep a steady beat?” — to “Are they participating?” These subtle changes helped to promote equity between virtual and in-person students and ensured students at home didn’t feel disenfranchised. Another teacher highlighted that they wanted to hear students make mistakes and emphasized participation over perfection. Most inspiring of all, educators prioritized fairness to their students — recognizing that children very often didn’t choose their circumstances and were adapting to the best of their abilities.

Many teachers, if not all, spoke about the past year as somewhat of a reset — instead of focusing on achievement and competitive success, students are hungry for environments that provide community and connection. Music classes are getting back to what initially attracted students and teachers to the art form — having fun, spending time with friends and creating together.

The lessons learned, new strategies adopted and existing and new technologies implemented can continue to have a positive impact on music classrooms in the future. Teachers have said, while they wouldn’t like to do it again, teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic provided new skills that both adults and students will carry into classrooms for years to come.

Throughout these thoughtful conversations with educators, I heard stories of resilience, creativity and flexibility. Every teacher I spoke with integrated new technologies into their teaching and revised their curriculum, and many taught fully online for the first time. Despite the hardships, students learned, made music and were able to grow in their music education.