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How To: Adjust Your Teaching Styles to Students' Learning Styles
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How To: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Assessing Student Writing Cynthia Carbone Ward

Check out Cynthia’s Book, How Writers Grow: A Guide for Middle School Teachers,
published by Heinemann.

For never anything can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it.  Shakespeare

What does “good” student writing look like? In order to find out, each student in grades two through eight at our school was asked to respond to two out of three common writing prompts. Students could write about a favorite sport or activity, an exciting life event, or a place they would like to visit on vacation. The prompts were administered on two different occasions, and each time, students were allowed thirty minutes to write. The resulting samples were subsequently ranked by the entire faculty (and parent representatives from our curriculum council) as being either below, above, or at standard for each grade level.

This process, although time-consuming, helped us to reach a clearer and more consistent understanding of our school’s expectations at each grade level. A booklet was compiled which included an “above standard” and a “standard” writing sample for each grade level. In addition to reproducing these in their original thirty-minute draft format, typed or rewritten final versions were also included to demonstrate the improvement from first cut to “publication.” Our hope was that these models of actual student work would provide tangible examples for students, give parents a sense of what can reasonably be expected from their children, and aid teachers in assessment.

As a teacher, I found the process to be extremely valuable, for it somewhat mitigated the loneliness and subjectivity of writing assessment. At our small rural school, there is only one teacher per grade level -- now at least I had a sense of how other teachers might judge the kind of student work I had been seeing. The question, however, remained: what exactly do we mean by “standard”? It appeared to me that for some of the grade levels, there simply were no “above standard” samples. Many were ranked as such only because they were being viewed relative to others which were inadequate. I concluded that this was rather like grading “on the curve”; its value was to give us a snapshot of what we were dealing with, rather than an ideal.

And so from whence does the ideal emerge? Certainly as teachers of writing, we have an overall sense of correctness and quality which we must temper based upon the realistic capabilities of children at each stage. We also have formal language arts standards from the state which tell us that at grade six, for example, a student should be able to “organize thoughts and information for clear and coherent writing.” We are further told that this standard should be evidenced by the student demonstrating “competence in organizing, structuring, developing and presenting writing based on a given topic”; including “relevant facts, details, and descriptive words”; and “excluding extraneous details and inconsistencies.” I think, too, we need to factor in an element of what we know about the individual student writer, not to compromise the ideal, but to reflect essential values such as effort.

Thus came the rubric. There is nothing so useful as a score sheet to quantify that which is not by nature quantifiable. A good rubric renders the evaluation tangible, crisp, and useful. It puts the Jello in Tupperware with handles, to use some brand name metaphors. The performance indicators outlined in the adopted standards -- along with everything I know intuitively about writing -- can be organized into the following four components:

  1. Content and Style
  2. Structure and Organization
  3. Spelling, Grammar, and Usage
  4. Presentation

These form the basis of the middle school rubric developed and in use at our school. Students may earn 1 to 5 points per section, with a total of 17 - 20 points yielding an A, 13 - 16 a B, and so forth. The complete rubric is included at the end of this discussion. It is an intentionally balanced evaluation format in which a student who is weak in spelling, for example, can make up points by showing thought and creativity, or a student who lacks creativity can compensate by having presented a work which shows effort and care. A truly outstanding piece of work, of course, would have high point values in all areas. Because writing is a process, students are encouraged to revisit, rewrite, and improve their written work based upon teacher comments and the scoring of the rubric. The improved grade on an assignment that is redone and resubmitted is calculated into the student’s overall average.

Writing assessment no longer seems overwhelming to me, and in fact, it has become an important part of instruction, as all good assessment should be. Tangible work samples show what kids can do and have done (although my hope is to get better and better models over time). Specific standards and performance indicators (and these should be very familiar to the students) offer guidelines. And a comprehensive rubric is a tool for teacher and student.


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