Illuminating True Progress for All Students

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Illuminating True Progress for All Students

Reynaldo Ramirez, Program Director, Soundscapes, Newport News,VA


As a Sistema movement, the two main goals we aspire to are musical growth and social growth. We often use some iteration of the motto “social change through music.” However, it is often hard to show data that supports this. El Sistema-inspired programs tend to more easily keep track of information pertaining to musical growth. They accomplish this through playing tests, juries, and concerts.

In 2014, Soundscapes worked with Dr. David Dirlam to create an evaluation tool that would highlight progress (or lack of) in all the areas where Soundscapes aspires to have an effect. The result is a developmental rubric that identifies the following nine dimensions of importance in Soundscapes’ overall curriculum. I tend to think of these dimensions as a “35,000-feet-up view” of areas where we believe students participating in Soundscapes will improve.

  • Behavior (Social)
  • Instrument Care (Social/Musical)
  • Aural Skills (Musical)
  • Music Reading (Musical)
  • Physical Technique (Musical)
  • Sound Production (Musical)
  • Practice Habits (Social)
  • Ensemble (Social)
  • Relation to Audience (Social)

There are four social and four musical dimensions, as well as one dimension (instrument care) that is categorized as both social and musical. Each dimension is then broken down into five ability markers: beginner, fundamental, intermediate, advanced, and inspiring/professional. Soundscapes staff (administration, musical, and behavioral) fleshed out definitions for each marker. The finished rubric has 45 different levels in which a student can achieve!

As our teachers began to evaluate the students, they often ignored the marker definitions and ranked students on their ability compared to others in the class. The idea of grading “on a curve” was so ingrained that it was a hard habit to break, despite repeated urgings to rate based on the definitions. After years of grading on a curve, the results looked stagnant. No matter how long a student stayed in the program, the best students were rated a 3 (intermediate) or above, the average student was rated a 2 (fundamental), and the lowest performing students were rated a 1 (beginner). On paper, there was very little growth.

The problem was the teachers’ longstanding habit of grading on a curve. Our big clue to understanding this was noticing that even in the early stages, some students were being given ratings of intermediate to professional levels. Such a scenario, of course, was highly unlikely. We knew our students were getting better…but where was the proof?

In the fall of 2018, I began a deliberate process to train all the teachers on how to properly rate the students. We began training sessions by considering students we all knew and rating them individually. We then discussed our results with each other and had to justify why we rated each student the way we did. At first, teachers found themselves defaulting to “rating on a curve” rather than putting the attention on the individual student.

After several training sessions like this, the staff began to reach a consensus as to what each definition meant and how to identify it. They began to focus on each individual student’s progess not in relation to others, but only in relation to the definitions in the rubric. The results were amazing! Using true developmental ratings, we looked at how each student has grown over the life-cycle of the program. On the graph above:

Blue “Social 1 and Musical 1” lines represent a beginner rating. 50% of students are deemed beginners in their first rating; by the 11th rating, no students are.

Red “Social 2 and Musical 2” lines represent a rating of “fundamental.” The other 50% of students are rated that way at first; by the 11th rating, almost none are.

Green “Social 3 and Musical 3” lines represent an intermediate rating. No students receive that rating in the beginning. By the 11th rating, 92% receive it.

Particularly exciting is the close relationship between musical and social progress, across this time period. Our most exciting discovery is that we can actually show that social change can happen through music. Students progress through social and musical dimensions at the same rate, pointing to the fact that social growth is tied to musical growth. YES! We are meeting our mission!

For a link to the full report, click here.


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