Performance Based Assessment Definition And Examples In Music

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The other day I had the honor of attending the Assessment Learning Network professional development in Michigan which covered the idea of performance based assessment.

I had a shallow understanding of what this was, but I didn’t have a firm understanding of performance based assessment’s definition. 

Performance based assessment is a process-based evaluation of student skills based on how they learn. It fits in with formative and benchmark assessments and can also be used as a summative assessment if allowed by schools. PBA engages students, simulates the authentic application of skills, and provides opportunities for failure and learning from specific feedback. 

This seems like a lot to unpack (and it is), so read ahead for more information on this assessment process you probably already do without realizing it. 

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Performance Based Assessment Definition

While a specific definition of performance based assessment (PBA) differs depending on the exact expert, there are elements of PBA which apply in every case. 

A PBA takes the skills and knowledge learned from a class and applies it to a task. The task is often project-based, hands-on, and reflects more real-world situations.  

This type of performance assessment requires students to use higher-order thinking skills to go through a process and complete their product or performance task. The emphasis on process and practical application encourage the task to be based on real-life situations. 

One example a presenter used was from an auto-engineering class he took. Throughout the semester, they had studied and learned the workings of motorcycles. 

The PBA for the class was taking the motorcycle apart and putting it back together. If the motorcycle ran, then they passed. 

If it didn’t run, they had to reflect and show they learned why it didn’t. 

It’s this culmination of performance-based learning that results in powerful and authentic assessments.

For music teachers, is any of this sounding familiar yet?

PBA is a formative assessment that collects data on a practical application of knowledge, not something like a multiple-choice test.

Characteristics Of Performance Based Assessment

This list of 7 characteristics of Performance Based Assessment may help you better understand what this system is all about. 

Students Create, Perform, Or Present Their Own Work

The first main characteristic of PBA is the goal of this type of assessment. With “normal” assessments, students are having their ability to recall and reason tested. 

In PBA, your students are creating, performing, or presenting work that is wholly their own based on what they’ve learned.  

They’re using critical thinking and the knowledge gained from active learning in a performance assessment task. 

Simulation Of Real Life Skill

The assessment should be related to how the skills and knowledge learned in class can be applied. The motorcycle from above is a perfect example of this. 

In music, similar examples may include going to a band or choir festival or writing your own song in a general music class. 

One of the examples discussed at the session was in instrumental technique classes in undergraduate programs. Take flute techniques, for example. 

To pass this class, we not only had to answer and recall questions about the flute, but we also had a performance based assessment. 

In this, we had to sit down with someone who had never played the flute and give them a 10-minute lesson while the professor watched.  

This assessment really showed whether we could apply the knowledge we gained in a classroom. 

This style of assessing is also self-motivating and engaging to students as they can see the knowledge’s usefulness right away.  

Products May Come In Different Forms

The results of a PBA task come in many forms. It doesn’t have to be a performance, and it doesn’t have to be written. 

Here are a few elements PBAs may use: 

  • Writing
  • Composing
  • Improvising
  • Reflecting
  • Performing
  • Listening

Time Limited

The time spent on a PBA may be short or long term. Some projects may take several weeks or over the course of a semester. 

In some cases, the assessment is limited to a short period of time. 

This is evident with band festivals. In many state’s band festivals, the group practices and prepares 2-3 pieces over the course of weeks. 

Then, they perform these pieces in front of judges for comments and scores. This is a long-term assessment. 

Often, bands are then expected to undergo sight-reading where the group picks up a new piece, learns it on the spot, and performs it within minutes. This is a short-term assessment. 

Both of these assessments show a different, though similar, skill set. 

Neither would work if there was no time limit. 

Inside, Outside Class, Or Both

One of performance based assessment’s unique qualities is the ability to be done in any combination of inside or outside of class time. 

Most assessments are tied to the classroom, but you have the freedom to encourage outside work as well. This is evident in choir students preparing for a concert. 

Some work is done in class (rehearsing) and some are done outside of class time (practice, sectionals).  

May Work Alone Or With Others

Unlike most assessments which are tests of individual ability, PBAs can be structured to allow for students to work together as well as alone. 

You’ll still be able to get good data on how the individual is doing by either requiring specific jobs done in the group or having reflections done by each member of the group on how their progress is going. 

Standardized Form For Scoring

For all the above characteristics, you (as a music teacher) are probably thinking: Hey! I already do all of this! That’s awesome!

But here is the most often forgotten part of performance based assessments. There needs to be a clear rubric or set of expectations for all students. 

This rubric (not the only option, but the most common one) is to give students a clear idea of what they’re working towards. And the rubric must allow for a way to collect at least some individual data on students (even if they’re working in groups). 

Rubrics or expectations may be generated by you, the teacher, or in conjunction with the students. 

In fact, some other countries encourage students to develop rubrics together. This often results in better engagement and more effective learning, although it takes more time, guidance, and trust on the teacher’s part. 

Performance Based Assessment Examples In Music

By now, you’ve probably noticed that performance based assessments are something we already do in music all the time. We may just be missing a few of the pieces from above on occasion. 

In this section, I’ll offer a few examples of performance based assessments in various types of music instruction. I’ll leave the specific rubrics for you to develop or you may go to MAEIA’s Model Assessments for examples in music with rubrics and teacher booklets. 

Note: This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but hopefully it’s enough to get you started thinking about what a PBA could be. 

General Music

Here are a few general music assessment ideas. These can be done in small groups or individually, and they can also be done in class or outside class. 

  • Composition project
  • Performing beat and rhythm on instruments
  • Identify and arrange the form of a song
  • Evaluate and respond to performances
  • Comparing and contrasting music genres/performances
  • Sing/read/perform using solfege or rhythm syllables
  • Add simple harmony to songs they know


Here are a few band/orchestra assessment ideas. Most of these are fleshed out by MAEIA linked above. 

  • Mock audition process
  • Festival
  • Sight-reading
  • Compose a jingle
  • Compare/contrast interpretations on a piece
  • Using a music editor to arrange a piece
  • Performing in a chamber group
  • Playing tests (scales, etudes, tonguing challenges, etc)

Why Look At Performance Based Assessment For Music? 

You may be wondering why you should even want to look into performance based assessments. After all, it’s just extra work, right? 

Well, here are just a few of the important reasons you should at least consider using them to a small degree. 

Get Real Data On Students – USing a PBA to collect data gives you more real and applicable info on your students when compared to paper and pencil recall tests. You may learn something about your students you didn’t know before. 

Encourage Thoughtful Learning – These types of assessments naturally reach the higher-order reasoning skills and help students stretch and apply the knowledge they’ve developed with you. 

Self-Motivating – Many times, these tasks are fun or at least self-motivating. They’re applicable to the real use of music. 

Your Admin May Require Some Assessments Anyway – In Michigan and many other states around the U.S., the governments are requiring more assessments as part of our evaluations. 

We can complain about it all we want, but our admin has to by law put this into our evals. IF we leave them to pick our assessments, we may not be happy with what they choose. 

Getting ahead of the game and picking them ourselves we’ll let us use assessments we can actually gain something from. 

They also line up perfectly with student learning objectives (check out my detailed guide on how to use SLOs in the music room). 


Now that you know about the performance based assessments definition, go out and do this in your music classes (you likely already are!). Use this to help your admin understand why what you do is important and real. 

Are you already using performance based assessments in your music room? What small twists do you need to add to make your assessments more effective? 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher in Michigan with 12 years of experience. He's the President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and founder of the Dynamic Music Room.

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