Striving to Assess the Write Way

fountain pen on black lined paper

Striving to Assess the “Write” Way

Last quarter, while I was sitting alone in my room, a former student of mine came to chat with me. She had been in my English 11 New Media class last year and was currently wrestling with English 12, eagerly anticipating graduation which was just a few short weeks away. She took the opportunity to tell me how much she had loved being in my class and expressed regret for the pandemic putting the brakes on what started as a great semester last year. The moment melted my heart. When I asked her what she enjoyed the most, she told me that it was relaxed because grades weren’t the focus, and she appreciated that learning was the focus instead. She went on to say that I still demanded a lot, but I made it okay to have setbacks, that I would honour the moves forward and not harp on the first steps.

That conversation reminded me of another conversation I had a couple years ago when I had two English 11 classes. It was the first year our school removed Honours level English and Communications 11 and 12 from course selection. Two students, who would have been in an Honours English class had they been available, stayed behind one day to tell me how much they enjoyed our novel discussions. What they were speaking about was our whole and small group discussions of Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.  What stuck with me is how much they enjoyed the discussion because they said it included students they had never been in their English classes with before. They had seen these students in the hallways and perhaps in an elective class, but they had typecast them as being “not too smart” and even “incapable.” This class pleasantly surprised them by how enthusiastic and intelligent they were in the discussions.  They felt the class had opened their eyes to seeing their entire student population as competent.

Presuming competence is nothing less than a hippocratic oath for educators. Douglas Biklen

When the environment is open to all, all will thrive

Changing the environment to become more equitable means shifting our assessment practices and the way teachers gather evidence of learning.

When levelled classes were eliminated, there was much consternation amongst English department members, and I respected the fear and frustration that came with that. No longer levelling students meant that English teachers would have quite the range of learners in their English classrooms. It would be a big, daunting shift.

I was one member who was quite vocal about removing levelled courses from the get-go. Historically, students in Communication 11 and 12 had viewed themselves as being in the “dumb English class” which is a self-esteem wrecker. By the same token, Honours students were given academic advantages over mainstream students because they are considered far more capable of high level work which is an equity issue.

The fact is the way English teachers have historically planned and assessed English classes has effectively widened the achievement gap.

Our population is diverse and multi-dimensional. I often hear the “in the real world” comment when teachers argue about assessment and expectations.  Our “real world” includes students with physical and intellectual disabilities, of varying ability, and with complex and fascinating backgrounds.  Every student has something to offer, something special to bring. The fact is, it is often regarded as more comfortable for us to teach students if they are all at the same academic level.  It is often regarded as more comfortable to teach students from similar socio-economic backgrounds. It is often regarded as more comfortable to teach a homogenous group as opposed to a more complex, heterogenous group.

Assessing with Respect: Everyday Practices That Meet Students’ Social and Emotional Needs. By Starr Sackstein. ASCD, 2021.

But that “comfortable” attitude about an ideal environment comes at a price. It means that teachers are making assumptions about students’ ability before they meet them, thus pigeon-holding them into learning to that expectation without any regard to possible variance or supports one way or another.

All learners need supports, all need an access point, and all need challenges. Supports aren’t exclusive to students with intellectual or learning disabilities. An access point isn’t only for the weakest student in a room, and challenges aren’t only for the over-achievers.

Shelley Moore on Twitter: "The last 5MM Podcast quote of the week! And the  reason why we do this work. https://t.co/ayieFIvjRC… "
Courtesy of Shelley Moore @tweetsomemoore on Twitter

I’m a visual learner. When a student raises their hand and orally relays a piece of writing, I need to step closer to them and read the actual piece. Should I be reprimanded as a teacher for needing to read the piece to fully comprehend it? What was the student requesting?  That’s the goal. The visual is the support I needed. I also use my Reminder app on my phone, so I know when to stretch, meditate, and take chicken out of the freezer so it’s thawed for dinner.  I still stretch, meditate, and cook the chicken. The app is the support I need to get those jobs done. If I achieve my goals, who cares what supports I need?

Challenging misconceptions

As an English teacher, I’m always trying to implement methods that make writing activities meaningful to the student.  I’ve set up my classroom so they can be successful. I’m not an easy writing teacher, but I’m fair. I demand a lot from my students. I’m fair because I teach from the heart and create an environment that is compassionate. In return, I have earned my students’ respect.  

It’s a point of frustration when a teacher expresses concern that my methods are not rigorous enough because I don’t give zeroes or tests or a final exam. On more than one occasion I’ve had a conversation with a colleague about a student who did fine with me but is currently developing unsuccessfully in their class. “They miss 1-2 days each week. If they missed that same amount last year, how did they end up with a C+?” Or… “They have so many missing assignments, it’s unrecoverable. They’re sunk.”  

The misconception is in the viewpoint of equating testing with rigour and quantity of learning opportunities with assessment accuracy.

I’m a standards-based grader. That means my grade book is used as a means of tracking evidence of learning of a curricular competency. I don’t have categories like Tests 20%, Writing 20%, Short Stories 20%, Novel studies 20%, and Final Exam 20% any more. I learned that categories help foster the lumping together of practice and summative assessments all under a heading, thus not accurately and equitably representing learning.  Additionally, when there are categories, the focus shifts away from the processes within the curriculum and more on the inclusion of products historically done (because that’s how they’ve always done it). There is no why, only the what. Our why is in the curriculum. Instead of avoiding the curriculum, it’s important to embrace it. 

Embracing the curriculum

Whatever piece of writing a student is working on, they are working on the same competencies over and over again.

Let’s say these are the curricular competencies.  I like to view each competency as “Students should be able to…” statements.

  • Respond to text in personal, creative, and critical ways       
    • Students should be able to respond to text in personal, creative, and critical ways.
  • Use writing and design processes to plan, develop, and create engaging and meaningful texts for a variety of purposes and audiences
    • Students should be able to use writing and design processes to plan, develop, and create engaging and meaningful texts for a variety of purposes and audiences
  • Reflect on, assess, and refine texts to improve clarity, effectiveness, and impact
    • Students should be able to Reflect on, assess, and refine texts to improve clarity, effectiveness, and impact
  • Use the conventions of Canadian spelling, grammar, and punctuation proficiently and as appropriate to the context
    • Students should be able to use conventions of Canadian spelling, grammar, and punctuation proficiently and as appropriate to the context
  • Transform ideas and information to create original texts, using various genres, forms, structures, and styles
    • Students should be able to Transform ideas and information to create original texts, using various genres, forms, structures, and styles

In order for assessment of the competencies to be consistent from piece to piece, the criteria need to be consistent from piece to piece. If teachers change the criteria for specific assignments, the tracking and purpose of the standards gets muddied.  The technique is to create criteria for each of the competencies so there’s an entry point and then consecutive stretches and challenges for all learners.  Write the criteria considering all forms of writing pieces.

**Note: Many educators know that I’m a big fan of proficiency sequences.  I’ve decided to approach this blog through the proficiency scale/rubric lens because it is more familiar. The criteria below could easily be manipulated to become sequences or continuums.

When building criteria, it is important to acknowledge the language in the competency and be sure to use it consistently throughout the scale. “Responding,” for example, is not the same as “Assessing.” When verbs don’t seem to work well with the criteria, I like to use Bloom’s Taxonomy in order to find appropriate synonyms.

Below is a list of the curricular competencies from above.  These could be used with multiple grade levels, but because I’ve focused on English 11 earlier, I kept that course in mind. All of the competencies align with all English 11 strands (New Media, Spoken Language, Composition, Literary Studies, Creative Writing, and First Peoples) and have a writing focus.

Below each competency is a comment about what I like about the curricular competency’s efficacy and how the scale fosters growth and learning.

Curricular CompetencyEmerging looks like…Developing looks like…Proficient looks like…Extending looks like…
Students should be able to respond to text in personal, creative, and critical ways.Responds formulaically or repeats what the teacher has shown.Responds with some of their own style and also uses some formulaic features.Responds clearly in their own style and/or point of view.Responds in a profound way, pushing the boundaries of their own style.
What I love about this CCStudent voice is explored.  This competency is about taking risks in response creation and acknowledges a student’s starting point and progress from where they started.  It is also task-neutral. Responses can be in written, visual, or oral ways.
Students should be able to use writing and design processes to plan, develop, and create engaging and meaningful texts for a variety of purposes and audiencesUses planning strategies like an outline, web, brainstorming or free writing.Uses drafting strategies, moving from the planning phase of brainstorming, outlining and free writing to a more detailed draft that includes a topic sentence, body sentences, transitions, and a conclusion.Can make minor revisions to my work improving language, style, descriptions, ideas, character development, conflicts, opinions, reasons, presentation and lackluster topic sentences and conclusions.Can make bold or sweeping revisions to my work improving language, style, descriptions, ideas, character development, conflicts, opinions, reasons, presentation and lackluster topic sentences and conclusions.  
What I love about this CCExplicitly teach the editing and revising process putting all our energy in students making these kinds of writing moves rather than making the teacher’s moves.  This scale honours the ways in which student’s chose to make their writing moves.
Students should be able to reflect on, assess, and refine texts to improve clarity, effectiveness, and impactCan reflect on their writing process by highlighting progress and next steps.Can use feedback to make changes that improve the clarity of the piece: fixing inconsistencies, adding description and explanations.Can use feedback to make changes that improve the effectiveness of the piece: altering voice, generating clearer reasons or setbacks.Can use feedback to make changes that improve the impact of the piece: considering audience, using powerful language.
What I love about this CCAgain, this competency is less about what students do and more about how and why they do it.  Teachers can play editor, but instead give feedback so students can make these moves themselves.
Students should be able to use conventions of Canadian spelling, grammar, and punctuation proficiently and as appropriate to the contextSomewhat uses proper spelling, grammar (sentence structure, syntax, language rules), and punctuation.Partially uses proper spelling, grammar (sentence structure, syntax, language rules), and punctuation.Consistently uses proper spelling, grammar (sentence structure, syntax, language rules), and punctuation.Consistently uses proper spelling, grammar (sentence structure, syntax, language rules), and punctuation and pushes themselves to use sophisticated techniques like embedding quotations, semi-colons, dashes, compound-complex sentences.
What I love about this CCWhen teachers notice that students are struggling, they can tailor instruction to individual needs.
Students should be able to transform ideas and information to create original texts, using various genres, forms, structures, and styles.Can move from idea to final masterpiece piece applying a genre, form, structure, and style.Can move from idea to final masterpiece applying a few genres, forms, structures, and styles.Can move from idea to final masterpiece applying many genres, forms, structures, and styles.Can move from idea to final masterpiece applying numerous genres, forms, structures, and styles.
What I love about this CCThe more the merrier! The more final masterpieces the better. Teachers are forced to offer these opportunities to writers so they can play and experience in the variety sandbox.
A work in progress, establishing criteria for Writing competencies.

That doesn’t mean teachers can’t insist on other parameters for a particular assignment. That specific criteria are usually found in the content. For a short story, for example, a teacher may want students to develop character, have an interesting inciting incident, and a rising action that builds excitement, etc. like those they studied in the short stories read in class. Teachers will see that student know this content criteria when they show us that they are doing the competencies.

BC Curriculum

Equitable assessment

There is more flexibility when teachers assess in a standards-based way. Because each standard is comprehensive, the best evidence students give us can be highlighted, while the weakest evidence can be disregarded. Instead of collecting all evidence of learning and averaging those scores (which doesn’t accurately illuminate what actually has been learned), students are no longer punished for having a starting point and their growth is honoured. Instead of harbouring on the quantity of learning, instead, teachers focus on the quality of learning.

In an English class, for example, let’s say the class spends each day for two weeks practicing various methods of personal narrative writing. At the end of the two weeks, students choose the piece they wish to expand on, enhance, and broaden as a masterpiece.  If a student in the class misses three days due to illness or other reason, missing two of the six practice writing pieces, instead of insisting they make up the two missed pieces, the pool they choose to create their masterpieces from simply decreases from six to four. This lightens the load of the student and the teacher while still giving students the opportunity to create a masterpiece. If teachers force the student to make up the two pieces because teachers expect the same number of pieces from all students, chances are students use the masterpiece making time to play ‘catch up’ and then their masterpiece’s quality ultimately suffers. Of course the more pieces students have to choose from means the more practice and feedback they had in class.

180 Days by Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle. Two Teachers and the Quest
This book both acknowledged the processes I had been implementing for years. It also gave me some new, wonderful ideas to chew on.
Courtesy: https://www.heinemann.com/

Even if a student misses all but one of the writing pieces because they were skipping class or having behaviour issues, using this method of practice leads to better skill development, and students eventually see that the more time they spend in class, the better writers they will become, which is the point of the class in the first place. If every piece is quantified, the student quickly sees that there is no point in completing the assignments because they have fallen so far behind there may be no chance to make up the learning. Additionally, if teachers show students their overall grade after several missing assignments that teachers insist on counting, students will view themselves as both a failure and recovery is unattainable. Allowing practice without penalty doesn’t send the message that the class is easy and that students can miss as many assignments as they want. Instead it sends the message that when they come to class they will have the opportunity to become a better writer. If they miss the practice, they will miss the learning.  Above all else, this process honours the learner, their flaws as a natural part of life, and provides opportunity for students to become agents of their learning. 

Daniel H. Pink Quote: “Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity;  controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to
Drive by Daniel Pink

As well, when teachers explain to students that they have the opportunity to practice without penalty, they will show more creativity and more critical thinking in their evidence. When the normally rigid, high stakes assessment barriers are lowered, students are more willing to take risks. I’ve never had a student not do any of the learning in class because there are no points attached to it. But, I have seen students experience unsurmountable stress when they were told that a writing assignment is worth X points or their overall grade might drop Y% if they fail. It’s a former self I’m not especially proud of but have owned. Now, I have lengthy conversations with students about why I offer practice without penalty.  When we shift our practice from points to learning, we must include students in the conversation.  It shows students that learning is a two-way street and that their acknowledgment is an important part of building a classroom community and relationship between teacher and student.

In a typical senior English course, students may write personal narrative, persuasive essays, informational compositions, and short stories. While all styles are practiced, students may be stronger in one style or another. A student who loves to write more structured, less creative pieces still needs to have a firm grasp on devices to describe situations or defend an argument and can transfer those same skills to their creative writing piece.

If teachers typically average the scores for each of these five writing pieces, 70 + 90 + 90 + 75, the average score of 81 falsely expresses the student’s best evidence of learning, which is actually a 90. It’s about changing our perception of grading as an incessant need to grade everything and instead highlight the student’s best evidence of learning. More importantly though, even the 90 doesn’t express where the student shows their strengths.

Curricular CompetencyPersonal NarrativePersuasive EssayInform CompShort Story
Students should be able to respond to text in personal, creative, and critical ways.ExtendingProficientProficientExtending
Students should be able to use writing and design processes to plan, develop, and create engaging and meaningful texts for a variety of purposes and audiencesProficientProficientProficientExtending
Students should be able to reflect on, assess, and refine texts to improve clarity, effectiveness, and impactDevelopingDevelopingProficientProficient
Students should be able to use conventions of Canadian spelling, grammar, and punctuation proficiently and as appropriate to the contextDevelopingDevelopingProficientProficient
Students should be able to transform ideas and information to create original texts, using various genres, forms, structures, and stylesDevelopingProficientExtendingProficient
The best evidence is in bold. Other evidence will be disregarded. This is what will help determine this student’s final grade.

Using the same criteria from unit to unit, also tells our students that teachers understand that they may show strengths in one writing style over another writing style. I hated creative writing in high school. I loved LOVED technical writing!  Sadly, because most teachers averaged assessments, the term in which my English teachers asked me to create creative writing pieces was always the term in which my overall grade suffered. My overall grade then was not a true representation of my ability to write well, and my self-esteem suffered as a result because I felt that I had to be perfect at every writing style to achieve a grade of high standing.  I was, on more than one occasion, tempted to cheat, and while I never went so far as to follow through on that notion, I did conclude that every year when I had to write a short story, that term’s grade would suffer and that was that. I was never motivated to improve the skill; I resigned myself to the fallacy that I sucked at creative writing and let that permeate my confidence.

I think our role as English teachers is to offer genuine experiences to students so they can determine what trajectory they want to progress through.  Handing over agency to the learner in this way is incredibly empowering. Offering a variety of writing experiences also gives students the opportunity to play with different language, take risks with style, and establish their own fortes.

“In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome.”

– Carol Dweck Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Closing

I no longer feel that rocking it old school by dinging English students for missing work or counting every assignment is how we develop a community of engagement and a love for writing. Archival practices of using carrots and sticks in the form of points and zeroes only makes writing feel onerous and daunting. If we delve deep into the BC curriculum, we’ll see that it offers English teachers the opportunity to see the teaching of writing in a different way. By assessing writing in an equitable way, all our learners will feel like they can becomes writers and that mistakes are something to be celebrated.

#MyGrowthMindset

This piece is dedicated to DJ, a former student who passed away suddenly in 2020. DJ loved learning and especially loved sharing his point of view in discussions in my class.  His presence in my classroom is what motivates me to teach to every learner to see their potential and always presume competence.

One thought on “Striving to Assess the Write Way

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