Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rethinking Assessment

"Students learn to find out what a teacher expects and write to those expectations – and the accompanying grades – instead of trying to internalize their own high standards for writing," writes Ralph Fletcher in What A Writer Needs. Given what both Ralph Fletcher and Alfie Kohn have written about the dangers of traditional assessment methods for emerging writers, how can teachers reconcile the seemingly opposite pulls for data driven assessments with the need for new writers to understand and grow their writing at their own pace?

There has been a move recently in many districts, especially elementary schools, to change from the traditional letter grade report card to a more skills-based reporting system. Such skills-based reports give both students and parents specific feedback on a student's progress in a number of skill areas rather than simply a vague comparison between letter grades. How could such a grade reporting system specifically help emerging writers?

Rick Wormeli is both a secondary teacher and an educational writer on this topic. In his article "Accountability: Teaching Through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading," Wormeli states:
"A grade is supposed to provide an accurate, undiluted indicator of a student's mastery of learning standards. That‘s it. It is not meant to be a part of a reward, motivation, or behavioral contract system. If the grade is distorted by weaving in a student‘s personal behavior, character, and work habits, it cannot be used to successfully provide feedback, document progress, or inform our instructional decisions regarding that student—the three primary reasons we grade. A student who is truly performing at the highest instructional levels with the highest marks, even though it took him longer to achieve those levels—for whatever reason—is not served by labeling him with false, lower marks and treating him as if he operates at the lower instructional levels just because it took him a little longer to get to the same standard of excellence...." (Wormeli 19)

By incorporating a more skills-based form of grading and feedback, students receive more personalized information on their strengths and areas where they might improve upon in their writing. Wormeli's work goes on to include so many of the suggestions that the NWP Summer Writing Institutes also advocate – writing prompts and learning situations must be meaningful, for real audiences, incorporate mentor and model texts, and rely on student choice. In doing so, students are better able to demonstrate their progress toward skills.

By establishing a grading system and criteria which evaluate student progress toward a set number of specific goals, both students and teachers are better able to understand how to best reach a higher level of achievement. Wormeli suggests that as a result of this changed focus from letter grades to skills, teachers must leave space for students to demonstrate their progress. This means that teachers need to think about how they approach the grading of late work (does a lowered grade for lateness accurately reflect a student‘s mastery of a particular skill?) and giving students multiple opportunities to practice skills. "Teaching accountability requires adherence to sound pedagogy, not just conventional grading practices always done because that‘s the way they've always been done. Assessment and feedback, particularly during the course of learning, are the most effective ways for students to learn accountability in their work and personal lives" (Wormeli 26). Assessment must be meaningful in order for students to grow. No place is this more evident than in the teaching of writing.
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