Assessing writing

Since Scott Benedict and Bill Van Patten visited Alaska, I have been changing the way I’ve been grading. I haven’t been changing the way I’ve been assessing. Grades don’t necessarily match assessments.

According to BVP, it’s not “right” to grade language acquisition. A teacher can grade completion of tasks, but if we compare adult language acquisition to children’s language acquisition, we realize it’s not fair to expect that after X hours of class, a student will acquire a specific level of language. I’m not going to get on a soapbox and talk about the factors that influence acquisition. I’m just certain it’s true that we all have different timelines in acquiring language, and I’ve seen enough examples of delayed acquisition as well as seemingly quick acquisition to suggest teachers accept this idea as a given.

(My daughters acquired their first language at different rates and their writing ability is very different, despite having many input hours in the same household.)

Now I have changed to grading on task completion. It’s a bit subjective, I’ll admit. But if a student does what I asked, in the time given, I’m likely to put down a “B” for completing the task. If the student goes above and beyond what I expected, I’ll put down an A. In a writing assessment, was the student writing the whole time? Was she avoiding English? Did he take some risks? Did he try to use some new vocabulary? That’s probably an A. Otherwise, if the student was writing the whole time, and produced a reasonable amount of product, based on his/her history, it’s going to be a B. Otherwise, it’s probably an F or “excused from task.”

Assessment is a whole different thing. Scott’s writing rubrics are still tied to grades, but I’m going to reprint them without the grades. Most of my kids today earned a “basic.” Their level of writing is below what I expect for their level. I could understand everything they wrote. I put down one thing they did well and one thing they need to work on in every notebook. But I don’t want to grade based on the assessments. If the kids gave a good-faith attempt to do the task, why should they get a low grade? (Really, if they’re below what I expect, I’m the one who should get the bad grade. I’m the one directing their input…and now I know that we need to do a bunch more reading.)

I’ve been truly amazed by one student this year. He has hung in Russian for four years now, and still has a lot of “Whoosh” (didn’t understand) moments. But all of a sudden, he is speaking in complete, grammatically correct sentences. His word order is correct. He is making jokes. His leap from single words reminds me of my older daughter, who went from making animal sounds to complete sentences overnight. Obviously the language has been sinking in, or he wouldn’t be so suddenly fluent in class. I’m glad that I was “grading gently” in the past. He didn’t get discouraged. And I expect his writing is going to be showing great gains soon.


3 responses to “Assessing writing

  1. Today I am staring at a pile of reading assessments waiting to be graded and assessed. It seems the challenge is always encouraging students to step forward. Hoping that it helps, I do evaluate what I call “risk-taking”. It is one of many factors (they are just like your list!). But overall, this is just a really difficult task.


  2. I’ll say. Reading another group’s writing today, I was amazed by the different forms risk-taking manifested itself. Some kids went for upper-level description. Others wrote short, choppy sentences, but they used vocabulary from interesting, different sources that we’ve seen lately. Still others were writing beautiful, long, complex sentences as they discussed what they’d seen in a film. It was quite a good lesson for me in what kids are absorbing (and what they aren’t absorbing).


  3. Michele, semi related to this discussion on assessment is your presentation on rubrics that I think you gave in Chattanooga. There was a Power Point on the website that I cannot find. Can you direct me to it? Hope to see you this summer.


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