New Report Offers Evidence that Classroom-Based Assessments Can Improve the Writing Skills of American Students

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Effective assessments are promising tools to help ensure that students write well enough to meet grade-level demands, according to a new report from Carnegie Corporation of New York, released by the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report, Informing Writing: The Benefits of Formative Assessment, offers educators and policymakers with evidence-based practices on how assessment can improve the writing skills of American students.

“Writing may not receive as much attention as reading and arithmetic, but it is no less important to a student’s future success,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Poor writing skills not only play a role in whether a student graduates from high school, they can also impact his or her success in college or securing a job that pays a living wage.”

According to the latest findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, 55 percent of eighth and 58 percent of twelfth graders lack mastery of the writing skills needed at their grade level. At the same time, writing is growing more important in today’s jobs, with more than 90 percent of white-collar workers and 80 percent of blue-collar workers reporting that writing is important to job success.

Written by Steve Graham, Karen R. Harris, and Michael Hebert of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, the report uses the powerful statistical method of meta-analysis to determine that classroom-based writing assessmentscan help students improve their writing skills. Additionally, these “formative” assessments, as they are called, allow teachers to gauge the effectiveness of their instructional practices, modify instruction as needed, and provide students with feedback on writing strengths and areas in need of improvement.

The report provides three specific recommendations on how teachers can improve their students’ writing skills and includes examples of how each of its recommendations can be carried out in the classroom. The three recommendations are:

* Provide students with feedback about one or more aspects of their writing;

* Teach students how to assess their own writing; and

* Monitor students’ writing progress.

The report also warns that the trustworthiness of formative writing assessments can be compromised if careful attention is not directed at what is assessed, how it is assessed, and how it is scored. To ensure the reliability of assessments, the report outlines best practices that teachers can use to assess writing in the classroom:

* Allow students to use the mode of writing, such as a word processor or paper and pencil, in which they are most proficient when completing a writing assessment;

* Minimize the extent to which handwriting legibility or computer printing biases judgments of writing quality;

* Mask the writer’s identity when scoring papers;

* Randomly order students’ papers before scoring them;

* Collect multiple samples of students’ writing; and

* Ensure that classroom writing assessments are reliably scored.

Informing Writing identifies three challenges in implementing formative writing assessments and offers possible solutions. First, because scoring writing assessments is labor intensive, the report recommends that students can help share this load. It notes that writing improves when students evaluate their own writing and when peers give feedback to each others. Another option is computer scoring systems, which already provide significant feedback to writers through spell check and other features and will likely improve with time.

Additional challenges identified by the report include teacher preparation, especially among content-area teachers who say that their preparation to teach writing is inadequate, and the need for new policies that establish unambiguous, challenging, and realistic plans for improving writing instruction and students’ writing skills.

Combined with previous Alliance-released reports Writing Next and Writing to Read, the findings from Informing Writing offer a variety of effective instructional methods teachers can apply to improve the writing and reading achievement of students in America’s middle and high schools. However, the report also finds that research in writing pales in comparison to other academic areas such as reading and must be ramped up to conduct new research on writing development, instructional practices, and assessment procedures.

The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC-based national policy and advocacy organization that works to improve national and federal policy so that all students can achieve at high academic levels and graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century. For more information about the Alliance for Excellent Education, please visit