As educators, we are all familiar with standardized tests and the stakes that come with them. Even though in the state that I teach in some of the high stakes has been taken out of standardized testing, however, its presence is still made known.
We spend hours pouring over those scores, breaking it down by objective, comparing its previous year's data, and then go further and break it down kid by kid, by IEP students, ELL students, Economically disadvantaged, and so on and so on. To improve and move forward with our instruction, yes we need to do these things, and I can I tell you how excited I am that my contest scores aren’t viewed in that matter!
But in a conversation with my friend Anthony Purcell (follow him on Twitter, just do it), he proposed the question, what if we looked at music contest scores the same way we look at standardized test scores.
The majority of choral contests have the two elements, a prepared stage portion, and a sight reading portion. For the prepared stage portion, each choir prepares two songs of contrasting styles, and one of those songs has to be unaccompanied, that is performed for a panel of three judges. These judges have a list of musical and choral elements each group performance is rated on that scale. Each judge gives the choir an overall rating of Superior, Excellent, Average, Below Average, and Unsatisfactory. My students and I start preparing the music we will perform for this contest starting in November and contest is in February, but the prep work starts the day they first walk into my classroom. So months and months of hard work is boiled down to 5-8 minutes of a performance heard by three very highly qualified judges who have never heard our choir perform. Then after you go through that you have sight reading, in that portion of the contest we are given a short piece of music that we have never seen before and we three minutes to learn it and then sing it for a judge. We get two chances at that. It isn’t easy, and sight reading contest preparation starts in August. You can get the same rating of Superior, Excellent, Average, Below Average, and Unsatisfactory.
Yes with my contest scores I do get judges comments and feedback, and that is by far the most valuable part of that judging sheet. But what by far makes the contest so vastly different from standardized testing is the subjectivity behind. All of the judges I have encountered have always rated my choirs fairly and according to our skill set and level, but let’s say that my choir sings at the beginning of the day as opposed at the end of the day. Or my choir full of seventh graders follows a choir full of ninth graders. Or my choir performs before the judges go to lunch and it has been a marathon of judging. All of these things are factors to contribute to the overall performance. Again all of the judges in my experience are highly professional and do their best to ensure that they do their job effectively. However the truth is this, the judges are hearing and seeing a three-minute performance of a five-month long process. They can only judge the performance; they can’t judge the process. Sometimes factors beyond our control effect what happen: your best sight reader and leader of the alto section wakes up with 102 degree fever and misses the performance, your bass section goes from 15 to 7 after a chunk of them end up on the eligibility list because of their grades in Math, or you could have a section that can’t find the Do (solfege syllables for those of you who don’t know) to have their lives in sight reading even though you know that they can do it.
So now seeing and understanding the background behind the contest, let’s say you are sitting in a faculty meeting and your administration pulls out the test scores for last year and includes your choir, band, orchestra, one act plays, and speech and debate contest results as well. How do you interpret that as a school? As a faculty? Do you even understand the context of what the results and the feedback? I would wager to say that you might only understand the score sheet in front of you truly if you have some music training or music degree. Would my scores that are suddenly in front of you come with an audio recording of our performance? Because it would be very difficult to understand those scores and feedback without hearing the actual performance. Here’s the kicker, isn’t music supposed to be a beautiful art form opened to listener interpretation, so shouldn’t that factor into what you are reading. Because how many people looking at those score sheets and comment cards would understand what they are saying. I know that would be terrified if my contest scores and comments were just laid out for all to look at and them and interpret them as they will. What you won’t find on that comment card or that score sheet is the real reason I go to contest. Not for a score, not for some judges to tell us how amazing we were (because we are), but for the purpose that it makes my students better musicians and it makes them better people. Going to contest teaches my students about hard work, courage, and dedication. Sharing your craft with anyone can be scary. Sharing your craft when you an awkward and hormone filled middle schooler is even scarier.
So to the ELA, Math, Science, US History, and Geography teachers out there, this is what it is like for me when I have to sit and look at your test scores. I don’t know what I’m looking at and I can’t even begin to imagine what you are feeling when you see an entire year of teaching summed up it a few numbers on a page. So if see me looking confused or looking like I don’t care, that is far from the truth, I do care, and I want to be supportive because you see they are all our kids and we only what the best for them and to see them succeed. Our teaching is not defined by numbers on a page and what data points our students reach, our teaching should always be driven by what is best for the child and impacting their lives beyond the classroom. When we do these things we will see those numbers go up, but more importantly we will see the lives of children improve.