Individual assessment in the large group ensemble

You can’t enter a school in Maine today without hearing conversations about proficiency-based diplomas and standards-based grading. Given this focus, arts educators have an interest in ensuring that they are using standards-based assessments to evaluate a student’s growth and development. The information gathered through assessment should be used to determine whether or not students understand and can apply content, and this process is perhaps the most critical aspect of the learning process for teachers. However, arts teachers nation-wide tend to lean towards assessing non-achievement criteria such as behavior, effort, participation, and attendance.

Most often, I hear from music teachers that they face unique challenges, namely that they are often responsible for teaching and assessing large numbers of students, such as in ensemble classes.

So, what does it look like for music educators, particularly in large group ensemble class? I reached out to Rob Westerberg, Choral Director at York High School in York, Maine and Director of the Portland Community Chorus for some examples of how he is able to assess individuals in his large group ensemble classes.

Individual assessment in the large group ensemble is an essential component of any academic course in music. One can no more consider giving an “ensemble grade” to each individual performer any more than a Math teacher could consider giving one grade to an entire class based on an entire class completing one test collectively. But due to advances in technology, reporting of the individual within the ensemble has become a manageable component of ensemble courses across the country.

There are two approaches one may consider when assessing the individual within the ensemble: in-class assessments in context or outside of class assessments. Outside of class, Smartmusic has become a traditional method of evaluating students for many, where the teacher selects assessment criteria such as scales, musical excerpts, method book exercises, and finale generated music. There are similar technology tools that may be used to accommodate the same general processes. MusicFirst is a more recent tool which is web and cloud based so students may access assignments from any computer. Another standby is Apple’s Garageband which allows input of sound and then the capacity to manipulate that data. It is easy to set up, assign and use. Student video submissions have also gained popularity via software on any computer or device that allows for video recording. Each of these has its own unique pros and cons which an instructor may evaluate to determine the best fit for the program and their students. But the bottom line is that students are empowered to provide data on their own time that may then be evaluated on appropriate standards, indicators and other criteria.

In class, iPhones and tablets have allowed for strategic use of live “as-it’s-happening” assessments. For instrumentalists, placing the device on their music stand is a seamless way to record data. Some directors have found it a challenge to strategically place these devices in a way that picks up precisely what a student is playing without the sonic bleed over from those around them. With some minor experimenting and trial and error of mic placements, these challenges can be overcome. For vocalists, memorized music provides the best choice for recordings; music stands can be used as a prop for the microphone. Live recordings provide the benefit of real-time demonstrations of what the student knows and is able to do. With practice, a classroom teacher can stagger these assignments and set them up seamlessly enough that they are a minimal distraction and take virtually no additional class time to accommodate.

The real benefit of the individual assessment, of course, is providing valid data on which to track student growth. Indicators which lead to success in performance such as tone and technical skill may be tracked outside of class. Indicators that may be assessed on sight reading excerpts or application of skills such as phrasing and diction for a vocalist, for example, are well diagnosed within the throes of the actual rehearsal. This is where the end game really determines the best strategies: what standards and indicators are being assessed, and what are the best ways to gather that data and report out? This is where online programs such as google classroom can also be a tremendous aid. By having students submit their recordings online, communication is exchanged on a platform that extends both ways between the teacher and the student. In a best case scenario, it goes three ways where the parents have access to the assessment tools, the student generated data, and the teacher feedback. This model can create an effective snowball effect, building off of prior work and feedback leading to demonstrated and meaningful student growth.


For more information contact Maine DOE’s Visual and Performing Arts Specialist Beth Lambert at