What does it mean to assess writing?

Assessment is the gathering of information about student learning. It can be used for formative purposes−−to adjust instruction−−or summative purposes: to render a judgment about the quality of student work. It is a key instructional activity, and teachers engage in it every day in a variety of informal and formal ways.

Assessment of student writing is a process. Assessment of student writing and performance in the class should occur at many different stages throughout the course and could come in many different forms. At various points in the assessment process, teachers usually take on different roles such as motivator, collaborator, critic, evaluator, etc., (see Brooke Horvath for more on these roles) and give different types of response.

One of the major purposes of writing assessment is to provide feedback to students. We know that feedback is crucial to writing development. The 2004 Harvard Study of Writing concluded, "Feedback emerged as the hero and the anti-hero of our study−powerful enough to convince students that they could or couldn't do the work in a given field, to push them toward or away from selecting their majors, and contributed, more than any other single factor, to students' sense of academic belonging or alienation" (http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~expos/index.cgi?section=study).

Source: Horvath, Brooke K. "The Components of Written Response: A Practical Synthesis of Current Views." Rhetoric Review 2 (January 1985): 136−56. Rpt. in C Corbett, Edward P. J., Nancy Myers, and Gary Tate. The Writing Teacher's Sourcebook . 4th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.

Suggestions for Assessing Student Writing

Be sure to know what you want students to be able to do and why. Good assessment practices start with a pedagogically sound assignment description and learning goals for the writing task at hand. The type of feedback given on any task should depend on the learning goals you have for students and the purpose of the assignment. Think early on about why you want students to complete a given writing project (see guide to writing strong assignments page). What do you want them to know? What do you want students to be able to do? Why? How will you know when they have reached these goals? What methods of assessment will allow you to see that students have accomplished these goals (portfolio assessment assigning multiple drafts, rubric, etc)? What will distinguish the strongest projects from the weakest?

Begin designing writing assignments with your learning goals and methods of assessment in mind.

Plan and implement activities that support students in meeting the learning goals. How will you support students in meeting these goals? What writing activities will you allow time for? How can you help students meet these learning goals?

Begin giving feedback early in the writing process. Give multiple types of feedback early in the writing process. For example, talking with students about ideas, write written responses on drafts, have students respond to their peers' drafts in process, etc. These are all ways for students to receive feedback while they are still in the process of revising.

Structure opportunities for feedback at various points in the writing process. Students should also have opportunities to receive feedback on their writing at various stages in the writing process. This does not mean that teachers need to respond to every draft of a writing project. Structuring time for peer response and group workshops can be a very effective way for students to receive feedback from other writers in the class and for them to begin to learn to revise and edit their own writing.

Be open with students about your expectations and the purposes of the assignments. Students respond better to writing projects when they understand why the project is important and what they can learn through the process of completing it. Be explicit about your goals for them as writers and why those goals are important to their learning. Additionally, talk with students about methods of assessment. Some teachers have students help collaboratively design rubrics for the grading of writing. Whatever methods of assessment you choose, be sure to let students in on how they will be evaluated.

 Do not burden students with excessive feedback. Our instinct as teachers, especially when we are really interested in students´ writing is to offer as many comments and suggestions as we can. However, providing too much feedback can leave students feeling daunted and uncertain where to start in terms of revision. Try to choose one or two things to focus on when responding to a draft. Offer students concrete possibilities or strategies for revision.

Allow students to maintain control over their paper. Instead of acting as an editor, suggest options or open-ended alternatives the student can choose for their revision path. Help students learn to assess their own writing and the advice they get about it.

Purposes of Responding We provide different kinds of response at different moments. But we might also fall into a kind of "default" mode, working to get through the papers without making a conscious choice about how and why we want to respond to a given assignment. So it might be helpful to identify the two major kinds of response we provide:

  • Formative Response: response that aims primarily to help students develop their writing. Might focus on confidence-building, on engaging the student in a conversation about her ideas or writing choices so as to help student to see herself as a successful and promising writer. Might focus on helping student develop a particular writing project, from one draft to next. Or, might suggest to student some general skills she could focus on developing over the course of a semester.
  • Evaluative Response: response that focuses on evaluation of how well a student has done. Might be related to a grade. Might be used primarily on a final product or portfolio. Tends to emphasize whether or not student has met the criteria operative for specific assignment and to explain that judgment.

Means of Responding

We respond to many kinds of writing and at different stages in the process, from reading responses, to exercises, to generation or brainstorming, to drafts, to source critiques, to final drafts. It is also helpful to think of the various forms that response can take.

  • Conferencing: verbal, interactive response. This might happen in class or during scheduled sessions in offices. Conferencing can be more dynamic: we can ask students questions about their work, modeling a process of reflecting on and revising a piece of writing. Students can also ask us questions and receive immediate feedback. Conference is typically a formative response mechanism, but might also serve usefully to convey evaluative response.
  • Written Comments on Drafts
  1. Local: when we focus on "local" moments in a piece of writing, we are calling attention to specifics in the paper. Perhaps certain patterns of grammar or moments where the essay takes a sudden, unexpected turn. We might also use local comments to emphasize a powerful turn of phrase, or a compelling and well-developed moment in a piece. Local commenting tends to happen in the margins, to call attention to specific moments in the piece by highlighting them and explaining their significance. We tend to use local commenting more often on drafts and when doing formative response.
  2. Global: when we focus more on the overall piece of writing and less on the specific moments in and of themselves. Global comments tend to come at the end of a piece, in narrative-form response. We might use these to step back and tell the writer what we learned overall, or to comment on a pieces' general organizational structure or focus. We tend to use these for evaluative response and often, deliberately or not, as a means of justifying the grade we assigned.
  3. Rubrics: charts or grids on which we identify the central requirements or goals of a specific project. Then, we evaluate whether or not, and how effectively, students met those criteria. These can be written with students as a means of helping them see and articulate the goals a given project.

Rubrics: Tools for Response and Assessment

Rubrics are tools teachers and students use to evaluate and classify writing, whether individual pieces or portfolios. They identify and articulate what is being evaluated in the writing, and offer "descriptors" to classify writing into certain categories (1-5, for instance, or A-F). Narrative rubrics and chart rubrics are the two most common forms. Here is an example of each, using the same classification descriptors:

Example: Narrative Rubric for Inquiring into Family & Community History

An "A" project clearly and compellingly demonstrates how the public event influenced the family/community. It shows strong audience awareness, engaging readers throughout. The form and structure are appropriate for the purpose(s) and audience(s) of the piece. The final product is virtually error-free. The piece seamlessly weaves in several other voices, drawn from appropriate archival, secondary, and primary research. Drafts - at least two beyond the initial draft - show extensive, effective revision. Writer's notes and final learning letter demonstrate thoughtful reflection and growing awareness of writer's strengths and challenges.

A "B" project clearly and compellingly demonstrates how the public event influenced the family/community. It shows strong audience awareness, and usually engages readers. The form and structure are appropriate for the audience(s) and purpose(s) of the piece, though the organization may not be tight in a couple places. The final product includes a few errors, but these do no interfere with readers' comprehension. The piece effectively, if not always seamlessly, weaves several other voices, drawn from appropriate archival, secondary, and primary research. One area of research may not be as strong as the other two. Drafts - at least two beyond the initial drafts - show extensive, effective revision. Writer's notes and final learning letter demonstrate thoughtful reflection and growing awareness of writer's strengths and challenges.

A "C" project demonstrates how the public event influenced the family/community. It shows audience awareness, sometimes engaging readers. The form and structure are appropriate for the audience(s) and purpose(s), but the organization breaks down at times. The piece includes several, apparent errors, which at times compromises the clarity of the piece. The piece incorporates other voices, drawn from at least two kinds of research, but in a generally forced or awkward way. There is unevenness in the quality and appropriateness of the research. Drafts - at least one beyond the initial draft - show some evidence of revision. Writer's notes and final learning letter show some reflection and growth in awareness of writer's strengths and challenges.

A "D" project discusses a public event and a family/community, but the connections may not be clear. It shows little audience awareness. The form and structure is poorly chosen or poorly executed. The piece includes many errors, which regularly compromise the comprehensibility of the piece. There is an attempt to incorporate other voices, but this is done awkwardly or is drawn from incomplete or inappropriate research. There is little evidence of revision. Writer's notes and learning letter are missing or show little reflection or growth.

An "F" project is not responsive to the prompt. It shows little or no audience awareness. The purpose is unclear and the form and structure are poorly chosen and poorly executed. The piece includes many errors, compromising the clarity of the piece throughout. There is little or no evidence of research. There is little or no evidence of revision. Writer's notes and learning letter are missing or show no reflection or growth.

Chart Rubric for Community/Family History Inquiry Project

 

 

A

B

C

D

F

 

Ideas

Clearly and compellingly demonstrates influence of event

Clearly and compellingly demonstrates influence of event

Demonstrates influence of event

Discusses event; connections unclear

Not responsive to prompt

 

Audience

Strong audience awareness; engages throughout

Strong audience awareness; usually engages

Audience awareness; sometimes engages

Little audience awareness

Little or no audience awareness

 

Form/ Structure

Appropriate for audience(s), purpose(s)

Appropriate for audience(s), purpose(s); organization occasionally not tight

Appropriate for audience(s), purpose(s); organization breaks down at times

Poorly chosen or poorly executed

Poorly chosen and executed

 

Conventions

Virtually error-free

Few, unobtrusive errors

Several apparent, sometimes obtrusive errors

Many, obtrusive errors

Many obtrusive errors

 

Research

Seamlessly weaves voices; 3 kinds of research

Effectively weaves voices; 3 kinds of research; 1 may not be as strong

Incorporates other voices, but awkwardly; at least 2 kinds of research

Attempts to incorporate voices, but awkwardly; poor research

Little or no evidence of research

 

Revision

Extensive, effective (at least 2 drafts beyond 1st)

Extensive, effective (at least 2 drafts beyond 1st)

Some evidence of revision

Little evidence or revision

No evidence of revision

 

Reflection

Thoughtful reflection; growing self-awareness

Thoughtful reflection; growing self-awareness

Some evidence of reflection, growth

Little evidence of reflection

Little or no evidence of reflection

 

Reflection

Thoughtful reflection; growing self-awareness

Thoughtful reflection; growing self-awareness

Some evidence of reflection, growth

Little evidence of reflection

Little or no evidence of reflection

Constructing a Rubric

All good rubrics begin (and end) with solid criteria. We always start working on rubrics by generating a list - by ourselves or with students - of what we value for a particular project or portfolio. We generally list far more items than we could use in a single rubric. Then, we narrow this list down to the most important items - between 5 and 7, ideally. We do not usually rank these items in importance, but it is certainly possible to create a hierarchy of criteria on a rubric (usually by listing the most important criteria at the top of the chart or at the beginning of the narrative description).

Once we have our final list of criteria, we begin to imagine how writing would fit into a certain classification category (1-5, A-F, etc.). How would an "A" essay differ from a "B" essay in Organization? How would a "B" story differ from a "C" story in Character Development? The key here is to identify useful descriptors - drawing the line at appropriate places. Sometimes, these gradations will be precise: the difference between handing in 80% and 90% of weekly writing, for instance. Other times, they will be vague: the difference between "effective revisions" and "mostly effective revisions", for instance. While it is important to be as precise as possible, it is also important to remember that rubric writing (especially in writing classrooms) is more art than science, and will never - and nor should it - stand in for algorithms. When we find ourselves getting caught up in minute gradations, we tend to be overlegislating students´- writing and losing sight of the purpose of the exercise: to support students' development as writers. At the moment when rubric-writing thwarts rather than supports students' writing, we should discontinue the practice. Until then, many students will find rubrics helpful -- and sometimes even motivating.