Commandeering State Writing Assessments

Our state is piloting a new form of writing assessment.  The old model involved a single day in 4th, 7th, and 10th grade with limited possible formats. Students had 75 minutes at grade 7 to create a persuasive or argumentative piece on an unknown topic.  The new model being piloted involves four writing samples taken throughout the year (ultimately there will be six in the future). Two of these writings are “on-demand” in the mold of the previous test, and two will be content area specific.

We are getting ready to begin our second content-specific assessment, which will take place in my science class.  When our social studies teacher graded the content of the previous writing sample he found that the kids were by and large summarizing the article they read and providing limited responses to the questions they were asked. Only 2 of the 90 students provided any level of analysis or evaluation of the work.  Finding this out, mere days before beginning my assessment, I knew something different had to be done.

With the content-specific pieces, students are allowed to research, peer review, edit, and spell/grammar check their work, and are given nearly unlimited time to complete the piece. Over the weekend, I had a wild idea:

If the students are already allowed to read each others work, make suggestions and corrections, research the topic, and in essence, work collaboratively, why not attempt to facilitate that?  Why couldn’t they start by creating a page on our class wiki where they linked to articles related to the topic?  From there, they can type up their responses on the wiki, using MS Word for spelling and grammar help.  Afterward, we can take some time for peer review, allowing others to comment about the depth of their answers to each of the questions, make suggestions about points to address, etc.

I knew, in the same instant that I had that thought, that it was doomed.  There’s no way folks would be comfortable allowing 12 and 13 year olds to have that kind of interactive work on a state writing assessment. What if someone went in and edited one of the student’s work?  Then it wouldn’t be their own thoughts or ideas.  What if the work was lost since there wasn’t a local copy saved?  There are too many if’s…

But I was wrong.

I approached our school’s testing coordinator and she was all for the idea. After all, this IS a pilot. They’re looking to see what alternative means to the same end will work.  The content area pieces are more “free-form” and the students are allowed to have some freedoms.  I explained this to the students today, and as usual, had about a 70% positive response and a 30% “could care less” response.  The page for collecting articles/videos, etc has been set up and a number of students have contributed links and some videos already this evening.

I think there are still a ton of kinks to be worked out in the new assessment, namely the fact that everything is scored locally thus far piling a ridiculous amount of work onto the teachers to teach writing skills, take time out of class to give the assessment, double grade each paper, and input scores.  However, maybe, just maybe there is some room for creativity and 21st Century writing process in state-wide assessment.

For a look at the student’s prompt and collected links, check out:

Oscar Pistorius at WilliamsonScience Wiki

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