Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Assessment Gap: 21st Century Writing and Standardized Testing

The snow from winter storms is melting, and the persuasive writing lesson on is holding steady as the number one “most e-mailed” lesson. These are sure signs that it’s almost standardized testing season, and students across the country are getting ready to write for thirty minutes or so (and/or take a multiple-choice grammar and editing test) to demonstrate their level of proficiency as writers.

I’m part of the teaching generation that experienced standardized writing tests not only as an educator, but as a public school student as well. I vividly recall the day, and it must have been around this time of year, that my eighth grade language arts teacher announced that we would be participating in a brand new test: the state writing assessment.

I’m sure we wrote for other audiences and purposes in that class, but I confess that I don’t remember those assignments. I do, however, recall spending weeks learning how to budget time, read a prompt, focus an opening paragraph with a preview statement, elaborate on three points of support with plenty of detail, and end with a conclusion that restated that opening paragraph. (I can even recall the topic I wrote on: Why people should move to Kansas City). I dutifully mastered that mode of writing and, as the years went on, I found myself able to rely on it, relatively unchallenged, throughout high school.

We’re at a complicated point in literacy education right now, as the influence of testing (and the testing industry) is as strong as ever. For the foreseeable future, we’ll measure (“officially,” anyway) our students’ ability as writers with assessments that have no authentic audience and no rhetorical purpose other than to invite efficient evaluation by a nameless, faceless reader.

This phenomenon continues even as we see a staggering proliferation of authentic, self-sponsored writing made possible through user-friendly, Web-based publication technologies such as blogs, wikis, and social networking sites. It’s exciting to be part of an era that affords teachers and students the opportunity to write and publish in a medium such a blog to a real audience with relatively little technical know-how or effort. It’s also exciting to think that we’re part of the teaching generation that has the opportunity (and, I think, the responsibility) to figure out how use these new technologies to help students become more effective writers and to write ourselves (and, not insignificantly, to learn more about how and why people write).

I wonder about the implications of the growing disconnect between standardized writing assessments and the kinds of writing students see and participate in online themselves. Are teachers finding ways to use these new technologies to energize students and promote more effective writing, even on writing tasks that are so drastically different in form and function? Or are a blog and a timed writing test so different that the result can be only further disengagement as students see an even greater divide between the kinds of writing they do and the kinds of writing they see as being officially valued?

Perhaps more simply put: Is it enough to change our instruction to incorporate online writing technologies, or does this revolution in writing make even more urgent the need to rethink how we assess our students?


Nan said...

Standardized testing as a student meant erasing fully so the scorers wouldn't mistake your answer. Standardized testing as an elementary teacher meant watching students struggle with writing prompts that often did not resonate with them. How could they design and describe a swimming pool for physical education when many had never been to a pool? I think that writing in the read world and writing for authentic purposes is where we should be. The states that now have portfolios as part of their mandatory testing have it all right.

Anonymous said...

I teach at a community college, and we no longer use the ACT--CAAP as an assessment of student writing. The results concluded that our students are basically at the same average as the rest of the United States. How much did the college pay for that test again? :-)

We now take writing samples from various courses across the discipline and evaluate different kinds of writing. Even though it still focuses on the teacher and course as audience, it is a step in the right direction, since we are even open to evaluating blogs, if teachers use them.

I do think blogs and standardized examinations are very different, but I also think that any kind of writing is helpful except forced examinations without students receiving their own topic choices.

Enjoyed your blog!

Charles Nelson said...

I'm not in favor of standardized writing tests. At the same time, the point about a growing disconnect between what students do with writing and the writing on tests is not the best point that can be made about standardized testing or about writing instruction.

There's a huge disconnect between what almost all students do in their personal lives and what they will be doing in their future careers. Just for one example, compare the short bursts on MySpace or cell phone texting to the boilerplate reports that engineers, accountants, and lawyers use.

Yes, Web 2.0 tools can be an important tool in writing instruction. But the point of a disconnect between the types of genres they use in different environments is perhaps not irrelevant, but is not useful in informing what forms writing instruction should take.

Scott Filkins said...

You raise a good point in your comment, Charles. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Certainly a concern educators have about both standardized writing assessment and much of the writing that happens online is that they are SO short.

I would contend, though, that there are models of online writing that represent the kinds of extended, thoughtful thinking we want from our students. Blogs certainly don't have the limitations of, say, a status update, and sites like publish and encourage more extended writing.

Perhaps the issue is better framed less in terms of length and more in light of the rhetorical possibilities online writing offers. In addition to the issues of sponsorship and audience that I discussed, digital composition allows for hyperlinks, the integration of images, sound, and video, and so forth.

Mandy Scarbary said...

As a general rule, I hate the idea of "objective"ly graded formal writing. I think that the concept of rubrics and the need for standardization turned into this notion that you can put a number on writing ability. 4 on mechanics, 2 on ideas, 1 on purpose, etc. You can put a number on it, but that doesn't mean that number isn't subjective. About the only thing you can really count is how many grammatical mistakes were made.

All that said, I don't think enough teachers are making a distinction between formal writing and personal writing. I use journaling and blogging as a way to increase fluency, practice voice, and generate ideas, but not enough is being actually critiqued about those writings. I think what's missing is a lesson in taking that personal blog entry and turning it into a polished persuasive essay. We need to be teaching kids how to "clean up" their ideas, so that they DON'T feel the disconnect between the formal and the personal, and so they don't feel that purposes for writing are so disparate.

Anonymous said...

Portfolio writing for state assessment is not the way to go. We have been using portfolio assessment in our state for years now and we are thankfully changing our laws to delete it from the state assessment. Portfolios became a matter of how much input the teachers had in revising. This was also a measure of how much time the teacher spent on conferencing. The benchmarks were contrived and changed often and the student who made great strides still couldn't make it to the next level. This is not an answer for writing assessment. On Demand Writing is much better.

Tom said...

Mandy, you caught my attention. Blogs for "fluensey, practice, and ideas". When I first saw the article's title and focussed on "gap" in writing, I assumed the gap was between blog writng and formal "polished" writing. I have somewhat the same delimma in that my students are of urban NJ. This "gap" could be comparable to the one I address. The ebonic slang, cultural subject verb accent, and prolific fragments. Unfortunatly, it seems, as I read these "blogs" on paper, I find myself unable to write, speak as well, in formal language. Fortunatly, I can teach; that is, more than use a Rubric. Therefore, this gap is nothing new in the inner immigrant populated cities. However, write they must. "Fluency" can be imporoved with "Practice" and with the right subjects in mind, "Ideas" will flow. To which, I address formality. I simply say that we all have two languages (or more), "the personal and the public" ("Caught Bewteen Two Languages" Rodriguez). Fortunatly, the blog can actually close the gap for me and apparently with any student who has difficultly. In addition, I think the blog will address the real problem I think I read in these blogs, teaching students to think critically, communicate and comprehend. Tom

Stan said...


We are kindred souls on the issue of disconnect between the writing assessments and real student writing. The artificial nature of instruction leading to formal state writing assessments has done as much to restrict legitimate writing instruction, and to stunt student growth as writers, as New Math did to injure students in the field of mathematics. The best writing in the stage of drafting that I have seen my students produce recently has been on blogs that they have posted on Students were writing for real audiences and attempting to speak in real voices. Obviously, the operative word here is real. I hope that the NCTE and all writing teachers work to both fight against politically and commercially imposed artificial writing assessments and to strive to create writing lessons that give our students opportunities to write for the real world.

Anonymous said...

Mandy & Tom-- Your comments about blogging and "polished" writing got me thinking about the very nature of blogging.

Blogging isn’t inherently formal or informal. Blogs are public and, therefore, intended for a very real audience. When I wrote papers in school, my audience was often “the teacher.” In standardized writing assessments, the audience is the “nameless, faceless test scorer.”

With a blog (or a wiki or any other self-publication tool) the audience is more authentic. Students may not *know* who their audience is, but the fact that friends, family, other students and even strangers can read their writing makes for a more authentic experience.

Students can freewrite and draft on their blogs, but they can also, as Mandy points out, turn that informal writing into a more polished piece. Blogging allows for multiple edits and re-writes and offers a forum for inviting feedback from peers. Blogs allow for a transparent writing process for a REAL audience. What more could we ask for?

I can certainly see the need to differentiate between formal and informal writing, as well as teach audience and purpose. I prefer to think of blogs and other multimodal forms of writing as essential tools for teaching these concepts, and not as roadblocks.

Anonymous said...

I think the question is really, "Why do we write?" While all types of writing certainly have value, the writing required in schools and the world of work vary according to the reason it is being written. Just as my former teachers did not have to teach me to use the telephone to express myself, it's foolish to think we need to "teach" students how to write a blog, text message, or email. They have self-taught these skills mostly because they have nothing to do with school! These skills can certainly be used to enhance the teaching of formal writing, but they are not necessary. These 21st century skills will certainly be useful to all of us who live and work, but they cannot be considered formal writing, any more than speaking on the telephone could have been thought of as formal speaking skills.

Li said...

Do you remember?

Does anyone remember when writing was either/or: it was either academic writing OR creative writing? Students all preferred creative writing but there was, and I believe still, a need for academic/technical writing instruction. I know how these lines became blurred. I'm just afraid that in our flurry to gain student acceptance for in class writing, we are shortchanging them in writing instruction. What is just as bad is the lack of attention to the fact of little prefessional development for teachers to learn how to teach composition.

concerned English teacher

S. said...

I think the best option to prepare students is to make it a class to study. My sister is in high school, and there is a mandatory class that focuses on assessment testing. I was really happy when my assessment testing was done for the rest of my education, however, now I am finding that a lot of companies are doing assessment testing that a Professional Employer Organization administers. The good thing is that these tests aren't stressful or as hard as the tests in school.

Mark Pennington said...

Far more important than performance based assessments or standardized assessments are what we should do at the beginning of the instructional cycle, i.e. diagnostic assessments.

Diagnostic assessments are essential instructional tools for effective English-language Arts and reading teachers. However, many teachers resist using these tools because they can be time-consuming to administer, grade, record, and analyze. Some teachers avoid diagnostic assessments because these teachers exclusively focus on grade-level standards-based instruction or believe that remediation is (or was) the job of some other teacher. To be honest, some teachers resist diagnostic assessments because the data might induce them to differentiate instruction—a daunting task for any teacher. And some teachers resist diagnostic assessments because they fear that the data will be used by administrators to hold them accountable for individual student progress. Check out ten criteria for effective diagnostic ELA/reading assessments at and download free whole-class comprehensive consonant and vowel phonics assessments, three sight word assessments, a spelling-pattern assessment, a multi-level fluency assessment, six phonemic awareness assessments, a grammar assessment, and a mechanics assessment from the right column of this informative article.

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