Teacher Scholar Voices

When Students Own Assessment

Teacher Scholar Voices

In Berkeley Unified School District, every child in the fourth and fifth grade takes instrumental music. In this ambitious and equity-focused program, each student chooses an instrument to play and to take home all year in fourth grade and all year in fifth grade. The district pays for the instruments and the repair. The teachers and the department organize the entire effort. The result is that every child in Berkeley schools, most of whom have never before played an instrument, is afforded the experience of playing an instrument, taking it home, and having it as their own personal musical instrument.

 As with any large (or small) educational initiative, Berkeley Music educators must determine whether the program is meeting their goals. Are students learning to play their instruments? What are their areas of strength and weakness? And how can we ensure that system-wide assessment occurs to support learning rather than detract from learning? Steffanie Schaeffer, a Berkeley Music teacher, explored these questions through her Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry last year, ultimately influencing the assessment approach of the department as a whole.

In an attempt to measure the impact of our music program, Berkeley music teachers gave all 4th and 5th grade students across the district the same written test each spring to assess their music knowledge. The music department felt the written test was not giving us the information we wanted about our students’ instrumental music learning, so we decided to give a playing test as a more authentic assessment. We experimented with different kinds of playing tests.

We tried sight reading. Students cried.

We tried the assessment music included in our method books. Students cried.

We tried having them play their favorite prepared song, with downward grade adjustments for choosing a really easy song. They didn’t cry, but they chose the easiest song available. After all, it wasn’t going to affect their grade.

But this begs the question, if it wasn’t going to affect their grade, why did they cry or avoid a mildly risky situation? Students want to do well. They want their peers to respect them. They want to feel successful. But in every attempt to assess their playing, we put them in a situation where none of these things were possible. It was publicly humiliating. So, many of our 4th and 5th grade students cried or took the easy way out.

My frustration with this whole process led me to my Mills Teacher Scholars Inquiry focus. I wanted to create an end-of-year playing assessment that didn’t make the students cry, or cause them to take the least risk possible so I decided to pursue the question : “How can I create a 5th grade performance assessment that has a true correlation to a student’s ability level and is a tool for further learning, both in my teaching and in their reflective process?”


At the beginning of the year in my 5th grade focus class, we did a quick shout-out review of the things we should have learned in 4th grade music and wrote them on the board. The students created a rubric by working in small groups, writing the criteria for 4-3-2-1 on 3×5 cards with the prompts, “What does your playing look or sound like to get a 4? …to get a 1?” From these cards, the class rubric was born.

The 5th grade students practiced a 4th grade-level musical piece of their choice. I video-recorded each of them playing their piece. At a subsequent class, I handed out their rubric, and assigned a skill for each of them to be assessing as we played each video. Students critiqued their classmates, using the rubric to explain what they saw and what they heard. Then, the student in the video gave a summation of what they heard from their classmates, and what they saw for themselves. We repeated this process for each student.

Unlike the playing assessments of previous years, students were able to handle this for two reasons. First, they were unable to dismiss the importance of the assessment. In this case, I was going to use the results to grade them. Second, and most importantly, it worked because students had created the rubric. They knew the rules of the game because they had written them (albeit with some academic language guidance from me). Students critiqued each other within the framework of the rubric, and then critiqued themselves.


I asked each student to choose one skill to focus on and improve. They would be able to change their focus skill once they felt they had made progress. We discussed the reason why each skill was important in music. How did each skill make our music more beautiful? Answers included, “better sound,” “smoother playing,” “better group playing,” “better ability to learn new music.”

As we learned our 5th grade skills, and applied them to longer, more difficult pieces, we constantly went back to our first assessment when we chose our focus skill. Were we remembering to improve? When we stopped thinking about it, had we developed a habit so it was it happening anyway?

Around this time, during a Mills Teacher Scholars’ collaborative inquiry meeting, one of berkeley musicmy colleagues mentioned that the most important part of his assessment process was asking the students how they felt about their performance immediately afterward. The self-reflection process in the moment gave the students the opportunity for clarity around what they needed to improve without the teacher having to correct them.

After this discussion with him, I decided to start video-recording my students’ reflective process, and gave them the emotional “out” of being able to get credit for performing a skill, even if they made a mistake, as long as they could tell me about it. My rationale was that the skill was a work in progress if they understood its execution well enough to see their error and use academic language to explain how they would improve. Assessments are better if they aren’t an end game, but rather a tool to higher-level thinking, and an ever-improving sound. 


Through this revised assessment process my students learned to think about the strengths and weaknesses of their playing and to strategize about how to improve. They stopped waiting for me to tell them how they were doing and started understanding how a teacher decides what grade to give, and how they can positively and specifically influence that process. Instead of approaching a playing assessment with the attitude of “I hope you give me a 4,” they would finish and say, “I think I fall somewhere between a 2 and 3 because I’m still looking at my hands more than I should, and my bow stroke was too scratchy.

The collaborative assessment work also helped my students realize that the disparity between the students who seemed to be at the top of the class and those who felt they were struggling at the bottom was not as large as it seemed. Everyone had something to work on. Everyone had strengths. Everyone had the ability to make suggestions to one another about strategies for improvement. They were each other’s resource, a listening ear, another set of eyes.


One thing I learned from this inquiry was to trust my grumpy inner voice that struggles to acquiesce to outside demands that interfere with the process of learning. Assessment is necessary, and it is reasonable for a district to want to know what learning is taking place district-wide, but this doesn’t have to be a mystery or an impediment to the students.

At the beginning of this current school year I presented my methods and strategies for assessment to my colleagues in our Teacher Scholars meeting. Every teacher in the department was invited to take these ideas, adapt them to their own class, and implement them in a pilot test. Many of us are now in the process of working to make this an assessment methodology flexible enough to use with the wide variety of student cohorts throughout the department.

Learning is a continuum and any assessment should help the students (and teachers) feel this as part of the ongoing process.


 Mills Teacher Scholar Steffanie Schaeffer is a Berkeley Unified music teacher who teaches chorus at King Middle School and Berkeley High, and instrumental music at various elementary schools. She earned her B.A. in Music, Piano Performance at Cal State University East Bay (at that time, Hayward.), trained in Orff-Schulwerk at The San Francisco School, and Kodaly at Loyola University, Maryland.  Prior to her nine years as a part of the BUSD music staff, Ms. Schaeffer had a private piano studio, tuned pianos, and worked with youth for more than fifteen years.