Assessing Student Writing

Assessing student work is vital to determining if students have attained important skills and knowledge. This is especially true for writing because this is both knowledge and skill based. But many teachers are still using antiquated means of assessing their students' writing. You don't have to stay up late into the night swathing each paper in red ink. There are better and more efficient ways to assess your students writing.

An important thing to keep in mind is that students are practicing the writing process. We cannot expect them to be experts, and we certainly can't expect to grade each writing assignment as if it's a finished piece of writing.

One easy way to assess and grade works in process is to use FCAs, focal correction areas. Now, I'm sure your local or state rubrics will demand particular aspects of the writing, from organizing to fluency to voice to conventions and of course to many other areas. These are all important assessment tools for pre- and post-testing, because they give an overall picture of students' knowledge and skill. But you wont want to use this rubric every time you grade a set of papers. You're going to want to focus in on individual skills for most of your students' writings.

Lets face it, we want our students to write well and write a lot. But the stacks of paperwork can be awfully intimidating. It is often this mound of essays that keeps teachers from assigning writing assignments on a regular basis. Its ok to be honest, grading the stacks of papers, especially if you have several classes worth, interferes with your personal life and keeps you up late forcing you to get them all done so students can receive feedback on their skill. And looking at this from a logical stand, I want the kids to be working their butts off, not me; I want them exhausted after my class is over, I don't want to be exhausted in the mornings because I was up late grading essays!

A comparison can be made to sports. When basketball season begins, players aren't expected to perform at game level. They first practice for many sessions over many weeks before they are assessed in a game situation. The coach first drills the players in fundamentals, the basic skills that are required for the sport. Next comes the advanced techniques, moves that combine several skills, and the implementation of plays. Finally players practice the whole of these skills in controlled scrimmages where the coach can evaluate them through guided practice.

The same is true for writing. Why would we want to grade a beginner or practitioner as we would a master of the craft? True, we will eventually grade a final writing piece, just as basketball player must eventually play a game against real opponents. But we want our writing students to practice a lot of the fundamentals, skills, and the more advanced techniques before we use the state's rubric, which assesses everything. And it is the daily practice on these little skills and fundamentals where the greatest improvements can occur.

So how do we assess the improvement in these daily lessons? First of all we must acknowledge the fact that we cannot grade everything every time, and students can't possibly focus on improving each area of writing on each activity. Thus, we need to breakdown the overall rubrics into manageable pieces. These are the FCAs. We choose just a few FCAs to concentrate on for each activity or assignment. We partner these FCAs with short mini lessons and activities to teach and reinforce the skill. And these FCAs will change as students master those skills.

The most basic FCAs to start with are for form and format. Teach the kids how you want their writings to look. This includes the student name and topic at the top of the page (along with whatever else you require). Then we move into the format of the sentences, paragraph, or essay. For our kids, we require brainstorming & organizing, complete sentences, topic sentences, supports, and clinchers in each paragraph. Students work on these aspects until they are automatic parts of the writing. Provide interesting yet easy topics and give plenty of activities to practice these skills. And resist the temptation to grade everything. The students' writing may not be good yet; don't worry about it. Fix and correct one thing at a time so the kids (and you too) aren't overwhelmed. Give the kids a lot of practice and they'll improve. Trust in the system; the FCAs will come through for you. Make your students good at form and format, and when they are doing these skills well, then move to the next area.

Save yourself a lot of work by having students identify particular sections of their work for you before they hand it in. Then your job of grading is much easier. If the FCAs include topic sentences or clinchers, have students underline those sentences. If you require three supports, have students number them in the margin. If you want students to use particular vocabulary or terms, have them circle these for you (these last two are especially good for teachers in areas other than English). Let the kids do the work for you! I even have the students score their papers and add up the points they earned on their FCAs. This acts as a checklist, ensuring they actually covered all of the assignment's requirements. And since they wrote the paper, the students know where each item is in the paper (or if its not there!), saving you time you'd otherwise spend identifying each item and then adding them up. Now granted, you'll have to spot check the papers, and there are always a few students whose work you have to look over more carefully. We all have those students! But for the most part, this will save you hours of checking time and allow you to provide many more writing activities on a daily basis. Get those kids writing more, and save yourself the work!

I like to grade an essay in formal final copy once each marking period. By that time the students have amassed a large number of second drafts and rewrites. I'll give them the opportunity to make corrections and then type the essay out so its easy to read. Also have students do the underlining, circling, numbering, and other markings for you. This gives your students the chance to select from a number of their rough drafts and choose their best one to fix up and hand in.

And just like the team that continues to practice between games through the season, you'll have your students continue to practice fundamentals and individual skills between formal writing assessments. Use the formal assessments you give a few times each year to see gaps in the students' learned skills.