Beware High-Stakes Centralized Testing in Music Education

"Dogma" turns creative, artistic, esoteric, and experimental work into rules, laws, and codexes, and results in more passive, less critical, less inventive participants. "Theory" remains more open, more fluid, more critical, more accepting of new and alternative perspectives, ideas, and explanations. Dogma tells us the way things are. Theory suggests interpretations of the way things might be.

Music Theory in its best form is an open-minded attempt to describe what happens or happened and why. It is part science, part art, part wisdom, part interpretation, and part guesswork. It is widely participatory and decentralized, with new ideas and perspectives popping up all over the world. It allows variation and endless anomalies and exceptions and things that don't fit or make sense. It evolves, it re-evaluates, it seeks, and it engages the whole music profession. It inspires, it ignites people to think and rethink and think better.

Music Theory in its worst form is right and wrong answers on a test. It's an attempt to nail things down and remove difference of opinion and room for error. Testing promotes and reinforces dogma. Testing puts things in boxes, even when they don't fit, and forces square pegs into round holes. Testing tells us whether our thoughts and ideas are right or wrong. It defines what's important and decides what's not worth spending time on. It nitpicks. It is authoritative, it offers rewards for thinking correctly and consequences for thinking differently. It is managed by a few, and followed by many. It consolidates power and can disengage potential innovators.

The increasing pervasiveness of testing in our music profession entrenches rule-based, authoritarian, and more narrow outlooks in music and performing arts education. It stifles creativity among the creative. It rewards students for complying rather than for experimenting, for pretending to know rather than actually to know. It encourages students to seek experts rather than to become authors of expertise. It disenfranchises and widens opportunity gaps and inequities. Unwittingly, testing and the associated reward systems nurture a more competitive culture that will include cheating and corruption (already widespread throughout academia at the University level). Testing will weaken innovation in teaching methods and materials and pedagogy because teachers will become obliged to teach to the test. Textbook companies will take over and their overpriced products will become essential. Education costs will increase but the money won't be going to teachers. Teachers will make poor curriculum, lesson planning, sequencing-of-instruction, and repertoire decisions and choices in order to accommodate the tests and test schedules.

In all of education, where dogma and testing increase, so do complacency, the necessity of and insistence on student compliance, and quitting. Creativity, analysis, collaboration, and thoughtful learning decrease. We as a profession should learn from the negative effects of high-stakes, centralized testing on general education. As in general education, more and more emphasis and reliance on this type of centralized testing will not have a long-term net positive impact on music education, including piano instruction, nor on music-making in general.