Why MCAs?: A primer on NAfME’s Model Cornerstone Assessments


Phillip Payne, Advocacy co-chair
Phillip Payne,  Manhattan


A new year is in our midst and professional development certainly is focused on curriculum and new approaches for the upcoming school year. In music education, a new book has just been published on assessing music learning in the classroom incorporating the new standards. The purpose of this article is to provide a quick overview of the new standards and the recently released Model Cornerstone Assessments (MCAs) that accompany them. A great deal of work has been done at the national, regional, and state levels to ensure this work is applicable for all music educators. We will examine what standards are, how they were designed, then specifically what the MCAs are and how they can be used in your classroom.

Standards are statements that identify the learning our students need based upon how they experience music in schools and beyond our classroom. Often these statements then form the foundation by which we, as music educators, design our curriculum. These standards are often designed to assist in enhancing musical and artistic literacy among learners. Given this definition, there was one missing element within the 1994 standards, and that was an expectation of performance across grade levels. While content was clear, what was expected of students at every level was not present, which made the developing of assessments to measure student learning difficult for music educators.

Given the direction of education, a revision of the standards was necessary to allow for more clarity in the defining of the standards and development of accompanying assessments that would enhance the profession through the measurement and documenting of student learning in the music classroom. Creation of these assessments then enable students to demonstrate how they apply what has been learned in authentic situations while providing documentation and feedback for the teachers to adjust curriculum and make more informed instructional decisions based on the results.

The Standards

In 2010, response to current directions in education, the State Education Agency Directors of Arts Education (SEADAE) gathered in Washington, D.C. and voted to pursue revising the 1994 national arts Standards. The National Core Arts Standards subsequently replaced the nine national music standards in June of 2014.[1] Kansas subsequently convened to adopt the new standards as the state standards with revisions that made them specific to music education in the state.

The new standards were established through a process known as Backward Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), where standards are used to determine what learning outcomes and assessment evidence will be necessary to determine a student’s achievement toward the Core Music Standards. Then developers considered what learning activities, assessment tasks, and resources would optimize the student’s opportunities for success. The emerging set of the three artistic processes of Creating, Performing, and Responding were established as the foundation of the new standards framework. Eleven Anchor Standards supporting Essential Understandings and corresponding Essential Questions were also developed. Within each of the standards were defined process components that describe the actions of musicians that demonstrate the critical thinking occurring within the student leading them to reach the expectations of the various standards across a variety of levels from novice to advanced(NAfME, n.d.). Like the 1994 standards, the format of the common anchors focused around the term “The students will…;” however, these standards focused on the learning process and what the students would do through experience with the content rather than just content itself.

figure 1: Standards Primer 

figure 2: Standards Primer continued. . . 

The Assessments

When considering assessments, educators often envision tests and grading. However, assessment is much more than just a test and is defined by a process that collects a great deal of information of analysis and evaluation. This process is inherent within the music teaching process and part of how we teach and is why the revised National Standards for Music Education include assessments that can be integrated with instruction so thoroughly. With the onset of the new standards in 2014, the ability to adapt one’s teaching to successfully demonstrate mastery of these standards has become easier, as it allows more accessibility and ease for embedding assessment throughout instruction. Taken together, these frameworks (standards and MCAs) argue for a deep and careful rethinking of how and whether teachers in varying school music contexts can meet expected results. The desire to develop students’ ability to create (compose, improvise) and respond (analyze, reflect, describe, interpret, evaluate) is not new to music teachers; the 1994 Standards included them, however, the inclusion of assessments embedded with the curriculum could allow for stronger advocacy among teachers, parents, patrons, communities, and stakeholders.

Considering the new standards were developed with end goals in mind and the intent of measuring student outcomes, development of accompanying assessments were necessary. The Assessment Special Research Interest Group (SRIG) of NAfME felt it was necessary to establish models for how assessments could be embedded and authentically, validly, and reliably measure the standards within a curriculum to measure student growth and achievement. These Model Cornerstone Assessments (MCA) have been piloted (2014-2016) across the nation and have been edited and adjusted for highest quality and flexibility. The findings of these studies are available in Applying Model Cornerstone Assessments in K-12 Music: A Research-Supported Approach published in the Summer of 2018. These new assessments are “designed to allow for task flexibility while documenting the quality of student learning” and “are documented to be valid assessments of student learning and can reliably document student growth throughout a music program” (NAfME, n.d.).

The goal of the Model Cornerstone Assessments is the creation of accurate measurement of student learning through artistic processes. The MCAs were developed to provide a valid and reliable set of measures to aid music educators in authentically assessing the described expectations of these standards in their classrooms (National Association for Music Education, n.d.). Current music teachers across the country recently completed pilot testing of the assessments with help from a research team to test for reliability, validity, and usefulness of the MCAs across age ranges and disciplines and have published all their results in (Cite Book). There are MCAs for each discipline and level of music education including Ensembles, Non-Traditional Ensembles, Harmonizing Instruments, Composition, Theory, and Music Technology. While there are standards written for each grade beginning in kindergarten and progressing through 8th grade, MCAs were developed for general music grades 2, 5, and 8. There were also five levels of expectation for the four strands of middle and high school music, beyond general music, based on expected levels of achievement from Novice to Advanced. Each level (Novice, Intermediate, Proficient, Accomplished, Advanced) is clearly defined by the expectations provided in the performance standards and are meant to provide a well-defined idea of where students are in their musical development. The level of Novice considers no experience in the medium and extends to Advanced, which describes what the student should be able to do if he or she plans to pursue a degree in music after graduation from high school (National Association for Music Education, n.d.). The scoring devices, or rubrics, are not content and process specific. If you have different content or want to try addressing a concept in a different manner, you can do this and still use the scoring devices. The MCA are only a model for how you would embed these assessments within your curriculum. In the video below, I have provided an overview of the MCAs and where to access all of the information.

figure 3: MCA Primer


“The MCAs are models to assist music teachers, using tested rubrics, that are sufficiently flexible to be applicable in all settings and contexts” (Burrack & Parkes, p. 199). They are primarily focused on the students’ musical experiences and designed to aid the student in learning the knowledge and skills associated with the artistic processes and their components through the various assessment tasks. Furthermore, they are established to be the foundation for students demonstrating each of the defined process components. The rubrics within the assessments define what teachers look for as defined by the National or State Standards and were tested for reliability and validity. As a result, employing these tasks and measurements could lead to the internalization of the music making processes which could then result in creating more opportunities for deeper lifelong interactions with music. The MCAs also expand ways for the current music educator to conceive of music literacy and ways to measure music making within the classroom.

From the beginning, developers designed the MCAs with the practicing music teacher in mind. The tasks were conceived through the notion that teachers best measure student learning when all tasks are aligned with the current teaching plan or curricular learning sequences. Therefore, they were designed to be flexible enough to cater to a variety of content and multiple contexts. It should be noted that these should not be the only assessments employed. While these MCAs do measure the process components, there should also be a balance of varied assessments that measure both content knowledge and performance skills as well.

One important note on the use of the MCAs: If you were to employ these for an entire program or district, it is critical to establish a clear set of expectations for the program or district that aligns with the current standards. Without clear expectations, the effectiveness and usefulness of the MCAs are somewhat diminished. Also of note is that the MCAs will have to be adjusted for various grade levels, but this can be done by inserting the criteria of the desired grade level into the rubric or scoring device.

Teachers should maintain achievement scores to determine the deficiencies of the students and possibly the tasks to guide future instruction decisions and program design. The MCAs work well as summative one-point data collection but can also be use formatively throughout the semester to reveal indicators of learning that are being met or need more attention. If used in the latter, the task cannot change over time with respect to difficulty or complexity. This will allow the teacher the best opportunity to document student growth across a semester.

One final finding from these MCAs was that the teachers are the best assessors of student work. While this seems obvious, the biggest variation in scoring and interpretation occurred when outside experts or administrators scored student work. This is critical in the establishment of your own assessment processes in your classroom. Remember that a well-designed assessment process will serve you in the classroom and be your strongest advocate both inside your building and throughout your community of stakeholders.

In conclusion, these Model Cornerstone Assessments are directly contributing to the evolution of the assessment culture within PK-12 music education. Many areas are impacted by this process including: improved student performance, guidance of instructional decisions, and program advocacy. Assessing student learning is a critical responsibility of our profession and a key cog in the teaching cycle that must be embraced and continually improved by our profession. Payne, Burrack, Parkes, And Wesolowski (in press) reported that “understanding of and competency with effective assessment procedures ensures student learning at all levels and creates strong and dynamic music programs.” Implementing new assessment processes in the music classroom is critical to allow for increased student learning and the MCAs can be the first step.


Burrack, F. & Parkes, K. (2018). Applying model cornerstone assessments in K-12

music: A research-supported approach. Rowman and Littlefield: New York.

National Association for Music Education. (n.d.) Home page for the National Core Arts

Standards in Music. Retrieved August 11, 2016 from http://www.nafme.org/my-classroom/standards/mcas-information-on-taking-part-in-the-field-testing/

Payne, P., Burrack, F, Parkes, K. & Wesolowski, B. (in press). An Emerging Process of

Assessment in Music Education. Music Educators Journal.

Wiggins, G. J., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria,


[1] An account of the history of the development of the National Core Arts Standards can be found at: https://nccas.wikispaces.com/History

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