Assessing the Assessments
Published on September 9, 2012 by Sara Foss

My friend Molly, who teaches seventh grade, has written a blog post on her preferred method for assessing her students. Hint: It's not a state mandated exam.

Here's an excerpt from her post:

"I have always started the year with my students with a writing assessment to determine the kinds of skills they have. It contains no multiple-choice questions; there is no scan-tron sheet to bubble in. It consists of only one direction and requires some loose-leaf and a writing utensil.  I simply ask each student to create a piece of writing and turn it in at the end of class. The only wrong way to fulfill this task is to turn in a blank piece of paper.  Students almost always look at me as if this is a trick. I can really do whatever I want? Any question they may ask is met with a shrug of my shoulders and the response, "What do you think?"  After a few minutes, everyone has zeroed in on that sheet of loose-leaf and begins to fill it up. The room gets very quiet and we all enter what my friend and colleague refers to as "the writing zone."  It is a feeling that I relish in my classroom.

You might ask what it is exactly I learn from something that can elicit so many different types of responses. The knowledge I gain about my students as writers is profound. The assessing begins immediately for me as I can see just by my observations, who began writing immediately, who took their time before beginning to write, and those who were clearly frustrated. This year was actually the first year in all my years of giving this assessment that I did not have to give any additional help to someone who just didn't know where to begin. I can see by glancing over their shoulders and seeing what direction they went those who are comfortable with writing and those who might be more unsure of themselves. I learn who might have a lower stamina when it comes to writing for an extended amount of time and for who writing is clearly a pleasure. And this is all before I have collected a single page or read any of their drafts. You can imagine the kinds of things I learn when I actually read their writing: clarity of ideas, paragraphing, spelling, mechanics, etc.  Not to mention some of the personal information they choose to include.

Now this is clearly not something I could "score" in the traditional sense. For it is not about points. Rather, it is about getting to know my students, assessing where their skills are at, and making a plan for the year that will work on areas that students struggle with and build upon their strengths (for I have new students each year, which means my teaching must adapt to those in front of me). Having a team of 116 students demands that I figure these things out sooner rather than later as it can be a daunting task to find one-on-one time with each in the course of the first month.  This piece of writing serves as an initial conversation with each individual student as we move forward and work on making them a stronger, more confident writer."

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