Thoughts on Developing a Writing Assessment

The focus of my teaching work of late has turned toward developing and administering a district wide writing assessment for middle school argument writing.  Amid warnings from the latest Rethinking Schools about all the extra baggage that makes Common Core implementation dangerous, like even higher stakes in testing and privatization, many of us on the ground are still working towards making something good out of what might be good.  The writing assessment we are crafting, like so many others being made in the likeness of the testing industry’s new Common Core assessments, involves a performance task requiring multiple sources students weave together as evidence to compose their own written argument.  It’s a tough task.  And we’re asking for teachers across disciplines to be involved in the endeavor with us: some English and Science teachers developed the test in consultation, teachers are administering it across the board, and most of the teaching staffs (including Science and History teachers, not only English) will be involved in the scoring process, learning to distinguish performance on various scales of a rubric.  The idea is to stimulate cross-disciplinary understanding and discussion, so that we’re all in the same boat.

My hopes are that teachers begin to give students credit for the sharp critical thinking they are capable of doing about problems of social, scientific, and cultural concern, and learn to express and argue with sophistication, nuance, and maturity across spheres.  I hope that all of this leads to teachers imagining engaging, cross-disciplinary units that involve interaction rhetorically with real-world problems and perhaps real-world audiences, cultivating civic voices and ethical commitments in the process of refining their linguistic repertoires. 

My fears are that teachers feel another wave of endeavors crammed down their throats without the time and space to formulate their own understandings, to take ownership and cultivate their own belief systems, and to hone practices that get students beyond surface understandings and procedural displays.  My fears are that students are being asked to do much, with the stick coming long before the carrot.  I am concerned about the ideology which attempts to drive teaching with evaluation, drive pedagogy with assessments, since evaluations and assessments often boil down to the most blunt and simplified versions of “the answers,” and what students need is complexity, individualization, and trust.  I tremble when I hear about computer-scored essays and merit pay schemes based on these assessments.

What teachers have to do (magically in the negative four hours of free time they have each day) is coordinated efforts of ownership, demonstrating that collaborative creation, scoring, and use of these assessment instruments by teachers for teaching is the only function that matters.  But it’s just impossible with all else that we have on our hands.

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