Monday, August 2, 2010

Thinking About Assessing Writing

Lucy Calkins has struck a nerve. In her book The Art of Teaching Reading she writes, "If we can keep only one thing in mind-and I fail at this half the time-it is that we are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by 'what might help this writer' rather than 'what might help this writing'" (228). Although she is specifically addressing conferencing, this idea is applicable in a much broader sense to the whole endeavor of teaching emerging writers. In an era of state standards and high stakes testing, many teachers are either required or feel compelled to teach to the test. In essence, we are teaching writing for one particular prompt rather than teaching emerging writers. We teach our students over and over to write for this or that prompt rather than teach them to internalize what it means to be a good writer. As teacher and writer Ralph Fletcher points out in his book What a Writer Needs, "The cost runs high when we coerce students (through grades, praise, favoritism), however subtly, to shoehorn their emerging language into the narrow parameters we set for what constitutes 'good writing' in our classrooms" (25). So the question becomes how can teachers merge what seem to be the conflicting pulls of teaching writers and assessing writers? How can we help students come to understand themselves as writers, internalizing their own high standards for writing?

There seems to be is a disconnect between how we assess writing based on standards, whether it be for state testing situations or the high-stakes writing prompts like those found on the AP and SAT exams, versus the way that real writers approach the writing process. Because it is easy, teachers attach numbers and percentages to outlines and drafts, to three page essays with a thesis. But is this valid? Who and what do these numbers assess? Students read the grade at the top of the page and then bury the work at the bottom of the backpack, or worse, the bottom of the trash can. Even on the flip side, when we attempt to use more holistic rubrics like the PA Scoring Guide with its labels like Advanced, Proficient, and Basic, students, parents, tax-payers are more concerned with the numbers of students scoring at a particular level.

How can writing teachers assess the work of student writers in ways that are meaningful, ways that reflect the individual student‘s engagement with the process of writing? How might grading writing for the mastery of skills help emerging writers grow more confident and proficient?
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