Ref. II D iiib
The Leaving Certificate Music Syllabus Dilemma: Assessment with Multiple Aims
Chair: Seán MacLiam
Reporter: Ms Marita Kerin
Panel: Prof. David Elliott; Prof. Marie McCarthy; Ms Dorothy Straub
The chairperson opened the proceedings by giving an overview of the new Leaving Certificate Music
syllabus. He made the following points:
• The syllabus will be in line with the current Junior Cert syllabus;
• It will be an open syllabus which will include class-based performing skills as well as
individually acquired performing skills;
• Its emphasis will be more creative and less technical;
• The listening section will consist of prescribed works, Irish music and some aural and
The chairperson suggested, as a modus operandi, we should address the title of the discussion. He
urged us to focus on the questions: “Are we trying to do too much in one music syllabus?”, “Are we
trying to assess too much?”
Chris Kinder (PPMTA) suggested we focus on the three main syllabus areas: composing, listening
and performing, and discuss with the panel how these skills are assessed in the USA and Canada.
Professor Elliott questioned the need for assessment at all (!!).
The chairperson outlined the purpose of the Irish Leaving Certificate Examination.
Professor Elliott explained that in the USA, each third level institution sets its own entrance
examination. He explained that since most assessment in the USA is done by the classroom teacher,
on a continuous basis, the universities have difficulty accepting this as a criterion for entry.
Dr Marie McCarthy referred to the American SAT and GPA schemes and said that, in addition,
interviews and auditions are held by the various universities and colleges. She summarized the
difference between our system in Ireland and that in the USA. “The Irish system”, she said, “is a
cumulative evaluation, whereas the American one is formative evaluation”. She proposed that we
need to focus more on formative evaluation here.
Gabrielle McCann (TCD) noted that in Ireland, as well as doing the Leaving Cert examinations,
students also sit examinations and attend auditions at the various third level music departments. She
considers this very stressful for the students.
Bill Hearne (PPMTA) queried the mechanics of the American high school graduation system.
Dorothy Straub replied that students are assessed, not in one subject, but in several subject groups.
There is ongoing teacher assessment in high school and students must obtain a GPA (Grade Point
Bill Hearne asked if the grade reflected level of attainment achieved or simply attendance at courses.
Ms Straub replied that a grade in an examination is not simply an attendance record.
Chris Kinder suggested that we now focus on assessing achievement levels and once again tried to
elicit from the panel some information on how a twelfth grade student in the USA would be assessed
in the area of composition.
Ms Straub informed us that there is very little composition taught in High Schools in the USA
Seán MacLiam proposed that we look at how performing is assessed in the USA.
Ms Straub said that performing would be assessed in Performing Arts High School. Theory
examinations would be more common in general high schools.
Dr Elliott reiterated the fact that assessment is left to the individual classroom teacher. If the teacher
is competent, the assessment will be accurate, but in the case of a bad teacher, the converse applies.
He said that composition is never taught in schools, as music educators don’t know how to compose.
He considers our standards here to be far too high. In his opinion our students are composing by
mathematics. Our listening examination, according to Professor Elliott, is textbook based. He
believes that, if a student is performing well (s)he is listening well. Listening and performing are best
Certain aspects of listening may be assessed through listening charts or perception charts, such as
those designed by Bennett Reimer. He emphasized the need for, and the importance of, teacher
education in this area. Our focus should not be on atomistic bits of information, not on recognition,
but on perception.
Maeve Smith (St Joseph’s School for Visually Impaired Students) sought clarification on the fact that
American students leave high school without a final test, having been assessed solely by their
Dr Elliott answered by saying that this is the current situation, but that Ms Straub is working on a plan
for uniformity in standard.
Ms Straub noted that US educators do not have a norm. “Anything goes. We have a long way to go”,
The chairperson summed up proceedings, reminding all that we must come up with a system of
assessment which relates also to other subjects on our curriculum. He asked the question, “should
assessment be left to the Department of Education?”
Gabrielle McCann asked Dr Elliott if he thought it fair to attempt to assess the goal of aesthetic
listening, if, in fact, it can be assessed or if we are testing the peripheral aspects of listening.
Dr Elliott stressed that we must assess Musicianship as it is demonstrated in various practices. He
said Musicianship is a multi-layered way of thinking. The problem with listening, according to
Professor Elliott is that it is covert. He cautioned against testing memory. In his opinion, it is better
to assess listening through performing.
Marita Kerin (PPMTA) wondered if Dr Elliott is presuming that every musician is a performer. She
suggested that some personalities tended to be at ease in performing, while others excel in critical
listening and analysis. All students should, therefore, not be examined in the same way. Dr Elliott
agreed, suggesting that listening charts, opportunities to conduct and perform, are all ways of
assessing listening. He stressed again the need for multiple means of assessment.
Bill Hearne said that he would have certain reservations about assessing listening through performing.
Dr Elliott used the analogy of teaching a group to play soccer using a video instead of playing the
game with a team. Performing, he said, is central to true musicianship. Music performing, he said, is
not only a skill; it is a way of thinking.
Seán MacLiam agreed with Dr Elliott and reminded him that we also believe in integrating listening
A short discussion followed, during which Dr Elliott expressed concern about the tendency to focus
too much on record listening, rather than on active performing/listening.
Gabrielle McCann interjected, saying that we are being dishonest. In her opinion, active
listening/performing is an aspiration rather than a practice. She developed her point, stressing that our
composing courses focus on the avoidance of fifths and octaves rather than on practical or creative
Maeve Smith said that students trained to play a sonata by Beethoven might later transfer that
knowledge to the study of a symphony by Beethoven on a recording.
Dr Elliott once more emphasized the need to get inside the music and the need for careful guided
Seán MacLiam, once again, tried to steer the discussion back to the topic in question. He asked, “Can
we assess all three aims? Are we attempting too much?”
Chris Kinder asked Dr Elliott if all subjects on the syllabus in the USA are assessed in a similar
manner by the classroom teacher and, if so, how standards are established.
Dr McCarthy outlined another problem in the USA in music education – how to assess membership of
school band/orchestra. Should credit be given for attendance?
Seán MacLiam described the Common Performance Attainment Grid which has been developed here.
The criteria are specified; it caters for class based, school based or individually acquired skills. It
indicates to the teacher what gets credit, how comparisons are made between class based and
individually acquired skills.
Dr Elliott conceded that what we have is very good, closer perhaps to the Canadian assessment model.
Seán MacLiam pointed out that Dr Elliott’s philosophy, in practice, allows a curriculum led approach.
Our system, by its nature, is exam led. There are merits in both. In time we might draw on both and
draw the best from both.
Dr McCarthy informed us that performance courses in schools are often focused on festivals. Students
in orchestra and band are now given credit for that. Music educators re presently looking at ways of
Dr Elliott suggested that we should focus on:
• What we are trying to teach and
• How we should do it
He said we must have a unified notion of what we are about. We must had a philosophy, a critical
reasoned set of beliefs.
Colin MacKenzie (Mount Temple Comprehensive School) outlined some of the practical difficulties
facing all of us. We must teach students to analyse and compose, yet most of them can’t ‘hear’.
Music education in our primary schools tends to be taught in a haphazard fashion, which leads to poor
musicianship at second level.
Marita Kerin suggested that, as music educators, we should be making some decisions on how we
want music assessment to be conducted. She emphasized the positive aspects of the new syllabus.
Seán MacLiam asked the group to consider the possibility of examining Listening, Composing,
Performing, in the traditional manner
Bill Hearne made the point that everything cannot be assessed.
Dr Elliott, once again, suggested multiple assessment measures.
As the session was drawing to a close, the chairperson suggested we take a quick vote on the issue of
whether we are trying to assess too much. There was a unanimous agreement (100%) that we are not.
Dr McCarthy was asked by the chairperson to say a few words in conclusion. She reminded us that
primary modes of assessment in Ireland are pencil and paper examinations. She urged us to make
certain that our modes of assessment for the new syllabus are appropriate to what is being assessed.
The chairperson concluded by thanking the panel and all participants.