Elijah Mayfield of Lightside Labs and Turnitin answers five questions about the future of writing assessment:
How can writing assessments be a help and not a hindrance?
Assessments can’t be scary, isolated incidents that teachers spend months building up to, and that occur in a vacuum each spring while everyone anxiously watches. They need to be embedded, formative, frequent, and a totally normal part of the classroom discourse. In reality, assessments lacking motivation or context usually result in stilted, alien paragraphs following a script and rarely reflect the student’s ideas, attitudes, and aptitudes.
Assessments lack motivational opportunities, and motivation is what inspires students to write well. Feedback from assessments take too long to get back to students. Students are motivated when they receive feedback quickly, and they see where they stand and how they can improve. Can you expect students to even remember what they wrote two weeks later? If they don’t remember what they wrote, how can we expect them to feel motivated to revise and expand on their ideas when asked to do so?
Does the optional writing portion of the SAT change emphasis on writing?
Fundamentally, students are goal-oriented. When given an assignment from their teacher, the first thing they ask is what the result should look like—which is actually asking how their writing will be assessed—how much time they have, how much the assignment “counts” for a final grade. These reasonable questions are the same kinds an adult would ask a coworker in the workplace.
One of the biggest goals for any high school student is the SAT. There’s been a big change in the SAT this year, though. The essay is optional, but still popular. In the conversations I’ve had in schools, over half of participating students are writing for the essay. The difference from past years, though, is there’s a lot more rigor to the task. Students are asked to be more thoughtful about sources and argument and author intent, and I think that’s probably good news for writing instructors.
So the mix of these two factors – students looking for a target to aim for, and the SAT raising the bar for one of the most critical targets in high school – means that students have a lot more extrinsic motivation to focus on writing skills, argument, and rhetoric. I think it’s going to continue bringing writing into the spotlight, especially on the tail end of high school and in the minds of students looking to move on to college.
What has changed in the last 5 or 10 years about writing assessment?
The situation has changed for school administrators. There’s massively more scrutiny on writing skills, and a multiple-choice set of questions about reading comprehension can no longer get away with being called “literacy” assessment any more. Literacy has many components – reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Reading has always been given primacy. Reading isn’t enough, though. To work well with others, in school or in life, you need to be able to put together ideas and use thoughtful strategies to communicate those ideas with your peers.
The odd thing is, students get this. If you look around a classroom now compared to a decade ago, students want to be writing to each other, yet instructors are trying to block this communication! I’m talking about texting, here. As smartphones and other devices have become ubiquitous, students are constantly writing to an audience, and while doing so are thinking about prose and narrative and techniques for getting a message across. This is not the 5-paragraph essay and timed writing assessments typical of academia. I hope that as devices become more ubiquitous, the lines will blur between formal assessments and other, more unstructured writing practice. This will give students an opportunity to see the real impact of their writing, and the value of having a rich vocabulary, a wide array of rhetorical strategies, and an awareness of audience and tone. Good things can come from more motivation to write and more opportunities to practice writing.
What will the future bring with respect to writing assessment?
Our company, Turnitin, is focused on progress, seeing improvement in writing, not simply attaching an evaluative number to a student’s work. In the past, it was enough to measure and describe a student’s current ability, which was the long-held purpose of testing, to tell administrators results in one carefully-controlled moment of time. There’s rightfully been a backlash to that type of testing because it overlooks growth.
We need to put growth front and center, and to the extent that there are metrics, rubrics, or timed tasks, we need those to be relevant, engaging, and specific enough for students to see the potential for growth. High school students aren’t stupid, and they don’t like being misled. Products built for writing assessment can help by: 1) making student progress more visible and celebrating that progress, and 2) getting students excited about progress and then giving them more opportunities to put what they’ve learned into tasks they care about.
How does this affect how teachers approach writing instruction?
As I said before, assessment needs to be a natural part of the discourse between teacher and student, throughout the year and embedded in the curriculum. Students need time to write, and teachers should ensure students see a clear turnaround from a writing task to a result, and it should be clear there is a relevant reason for putting a time limit to that task in the first place. Success means having the right mix of technology, curriculum, and relationships without overdue emphasis on any one piece.
Teachers also need to value the digital culture their students live in and point out that their writing with their friends, coworkers, family, and mentors can benefit from the same instruction they are getting in their classroom writing.
If teachers can fit writing into the classroom conversation without making it a bizarre end-of-year event, students will see writing as part of their everyday skillset. If they connect it to each student’s life and goals, they’ll be motivated to improve. And if they can draw a clear line from practice in writing to progress over time and growth as a communicator and leader among their peers, then students will make the connection themselves and the lesson will be made without drilling it into their heads.