Revising the marking criteria
In July we published revised marking criteria for instrumental and singing exams at Grades 1 to 8, for use from January 2014. Here Chief Examiner John Holmes explains the background to the revisions and what they mean for teachers and candidates. The ABRSM marking criteria underpin the standards and consistency of all examiners’ marking as they form the basis of assessment for practical graded music exams. So wherever you take an exam – in Solihull or Singapore – the examiner will be following exactly the same marking guidelines, with the aim of exactly the same assessment. In an exam situation it’s not enough just to recognise that a performance is outstanding, good or weak. It’s essential that examiners can identify the precise reasons why a candidate gets a Distinction or just manages a Pass, and that these reasons are clearly communicated to the teacher and the candidate via the mark form. ABRSM’s revised marking criteria are designed to ensure that this happens.
Reasons for a revision
So, why have we revised the criteria? There are a number of reasons. First of all, it’s healthy to renew and refresh marking criteria every so often – we hadn’t done this since 1998, so a revision was actually overdue. Then, we wanted to make sure that the criteria are as accessible and transparent as possible. Marking obviously needs to be consistent, so it’s vital that the criteria are logical, clear and easy to use. This is not just an issue for examiners – it matters hugely to teachers and candidates, and parents and stewards, who all need to understand the way we mark exams.
Consistency, transparency, objectivity
As part of the revision process we consulted widely, especially among ABRSM examiners themselves. A huge amount of analysis of mark forms has also influenced our revisions. Overall we aimed to produce a set of marking criteria which maximise consistency of marking, while also promoting transparency and objectivity in our exams. For all concerned, we wanted the criteria to be more straightforward to use, simpler to understand, and easier to read at a glance. For teachers, candidates and parents we wanted to provide relevant and helpful information about how marks are awarded in each category of result, and for each section of the exam. We also wanted to address some weaknesses and gaps, such as the need for specific criteria for marking the Unaccompanied Traditional Song in Singing exams. Along with this, although our marking criteria were publicly available, we were not certain that everyone was aware of them and their significance. With these more user-friendly criteria in place – on our website and, eventually, in all our printed syllabus booklets – we are hoping to raise this awareness. Of course, the revisions come without making any changes to the exam itself or to the standards we set. It’s important to emphasise that we are not asking for anything new. We haven’t ‘raised the bar’, ‘moved the goalposts’ or ‘dumbed down’; the attainment levels remain exactly the same. The 2014 marking criteria represent a revision and a refinement, so for the candidate in the exam room and the marks they achieve, there will be no change.
Using the marking criteria
In the past, the marking criteria were perhaps viewed as something just for examiners to use, but knowing how playing or singing is going to be marked is really helpful for teachers and candidates too – not just for exam preparation but for musical learning and progression generally. The aim is for the criteria to be useful to teachers in lessons, to students in their practice and to examiners in the exam room. The criteria clearly show what’s expected for a Pass, a Merit or a Distinction, so by understanding more precisely what an ABRSM examiner is looking for, teachers can help their candidates achieve higher standards. They can also be used successfully as the basis of discussion and activities within lessons and subsequent practice sessions.
Asking new questions
When I was teaching classroom music, I often went over work with the class, and would encourage students to review each others’ work as if they were marking it, and then to share their thoughts. This often generated new ideas, and students learnt how seeing things from an assessment point of view can help to develop their skills and understanding. It’s not like that in a piano lesson for example, where you’re probably teaching a single student, perhaps for a relatively short time. Nevertheless, a similar process can take place in a one-to-one lesson, and my hope is that armed with our revised marking criteria, teachers can encourage students to ask themselves new questions about their progress and performance.
Pitch, time, tone, shape and performance
The 2014 criteria show clearly the different aspects of musical playing or singing, under five broad areas of musical control: pitch; time; tone; shape and performance. Under ‘shape’, for example, the criteria tell us that examiners listen for the effectiveness of musical detailing and phrasing, and under ‘performance’, that they assess the overall command of the instrument, the level of engagement with the music and quality of communication. This information, and much more, is now clearly shown in the marking criteria – information that teachers can use to inform candidates’ preparation, improve their learning experience and help them to get the most from our exams. Pitch, time, tone, shape and performance are elements which apply universally to all instruments and types of piece or song. As a result, teaching ideas or discussion about them can easily be introduced into any lesson. For instance, a teacher could ask a student which of the five areas they thought they did best at in a particular piece or song, and which they were least good at. The discussion that follows could then become the starting point for the next stage – both in lessons and in practice sessions at home.
Developing all-round skills
Ultimately, I hope that the format of our revised marking criteria will be the springboard for a range of teaching ideas and practice strategies that will encourage a balanced focus on all the essential ingredients of musical playing and singing. ABRSM exams aim to help nurture the development of all-round musical skills, and the revised criteria are very much intended to support teachers, candidates and examiners in understanding what we mean by ‘the whole musician’ – the player or singer who ‘ticks all the boxes’!
- Watch and assess all the elements of an ABRSM graded music exam and compare notes with John using our new On your marks resource
- Moving to one set of criteria for all grades – currently we have separate criteria for Grades 1 to 5 and 6 to 8.
- For pieces and songs, giving a clearer indication of the aspects of musical outcome for which marks are awarded: pitch; time; tone; shape and performance.
- For each of the supporting tests, giving a clearer indication of the basis of assessment and the various attainment levels.
- Making the difference between what makes a Pass, Merit or Distinction clearer.
- Introducing new specific criteria for marking the Unaccompanied Traditional Song in all Singing exams.
- Showing the allocation of marks for Singing exams at Grades 6 to 8, where the totals are other than 30.
This article was originally featured in the October 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.