Thursday, June 26, 2008

Because Writing Matters - Chapter 5 - "Standards and Assessments for Writing"

On 6/19/08 the CSU Writing Project Summer Institute discussed Carl Nagin's Because Writing Matters. What follows is a brief overview of our discussions for chapter five, "Standards and Assessments for Writing."

We began by discussing how assessment in current educational discourse drives much of the focus on writing. Writing is a portal toward assessment accross the curriculum. Indeed, students are now writing in math (72-73). What's next? Coed dances?

From there, we explored the issue of standardized testing and its failure in providing an opportunity for students to write from a place best suited to their individual lives. Generally speaking, the writing prompts are too narrow on these standardized tests. But all hope was not lost.

Kentucky's standardized assessments take as its model the portfolio, which, our group agreed, provides a more authentic assessment of student writing. Kentucky uses a holistic scoring guide to assess portfolio writing and renames CSAPs qualifiers for success--"unsatisfactory," "partially proficient," "proficient," and "advanced"--to a more respectful "novice," "apprentice," "proficient," and "distinguished." Kentucky's language lends a degree of respect and dignity to students, which, we thought, was lacking in the aforementioned CSAP terminology. The point to which we returned is that under the Kentucky model students become stake holders in their own learning.

Under this model, students write from a variety of perspectives, thereby addressing the narrow prompts of the CSAPs. Moreover, students have a say in which of their writings they hope to include in their portfolios. Indeed, students also have a say in developing and contributing to the assessment criterea. At the end of grades 4, 7, and 12, schools host a community-wide exhibition of students' writing. The exhibition gathers parents, students, teachers, and community business leaders to review the writing. This allows for students to write to an authentic familial, social, collegial, and business audience, thereby infusing their writing with a relevance that is lacking in current CSAP models. Additionally, this holds the students to a certain degree of accountability that they would not otherwise have if writing to the anamolous CSAP audience. This model seems to be working, as 80% of Kentucky teachers recognized a significant improvement in their students' writing.

When compared to the CSAPs, Kentucky's portfolio model of assessment illuminates the former's artificiality, an artificuality that supports formulaic writing. How can it not? The rigidity of the setting of a CSAP test demands a formulaic approach to writing. For example, the group noted that the revision process during CSAPs is conducted in an unrealistic format.

Our group concluded by suggesting that the portfolio approach provides an assessor with a far better picture of the students' writing abilities, particularly when considering a multi-genre approach to writing portfolios.

We hope yoy find this review useful and welcome any additional comments or feedback.

Write on,

Stephen Hlawaty


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