Reclaiming Assessment

Instead of sending its essays off to a for-profit scoring company, Portland teachers score papers as part of a discussion about what is good writing and good writing instruction.

By Linda Christensen

Writing instruction should be a conversation between writers and readers, students and teachers. Questions and suggestions about the text, alternative structures and approaches, as well as laughter and tears form a dialogue that pushes students to their next drafts. Unfortunately, many states have intruded on this conversation and inserted numbers instead of words, eliminating the dialogue in favor of single digits that can be easily compared across schools, cities, and states.

I’m skeptical of this reduction of student writing to numbers to begin with. I’m even more skeptical when the scoring is taken out of the hands of teachers. Important lessons can be learned when teachers sit down together with student papers and discuss the results. In too many states, the standards movement has jumped over a much-needed discussion by teachers on what might constitute a “standards-based curriculum.”

In Oregon, the state demanded a collection of writing samples from students. The Portland Public Schools decided to use the mandate as part of staff development sessions for ninth- and 10th-grade English teachers.

Prior to the collection, teachers gathered for day-long sessions to share teaching strategies and assignments that produced good writing. A month later they returned with their students’ writing and exchanged papers with teachers through-out the district.

As a former teacher at the lowest-performing school (according to state tests), I looked forward to reading student papers from more affluent and higher-scoring schools. I wanted to check my standards and results against my colleagues’. Was I rigorous enough? Did I demand as much as other teachers in the district? Was I asking for as many assignments? Did I include sufficient time for revisions? How were other teachers handling the paper load?

As we read papers, we gleaned ideas for lesson plans we could use back in our own classrooms, but we also challenged and questioned each other about what was important in student writing. One teacher gave many ones, the lowest score on the six-trait analysis scale. When the teachers at her table questioned her, she answered, “I count the paragraphs. If there aren’t five, I automatically give the student all ones.” This led to a fruitful discussion about the five-paragraph essay, criteria for writing, as well as a return to the scoring rubric and model papers.

Overall, however, I’m angered by the state’s increased intrusion into the classroom. The assessments seem designed less to nurture young writers than to judge, rank, and sort. Teachers need to reclaim assessment from the psychometricians and insist on our right to hold a conversation with peers about what is good writing and good writing instruction. The states have jumped over this discussion. It’s time for teachers to demand it.

Linda Christensen ( is a Rethinking Schools editor and Language Arts Coordinator for Portland Public Schools.