How Do We Assess Writing Properly?

The annual standardized writing assessments I took back in grade school always confused me. I always thought of myself as a pretty good writer, but for some reason I never performed well on these exams. I’m sure everyone reading is familiar with the format of these tests but let me quickly remind you on how these assessments worked. Students were given a prompt, usually one that required the students the argue or persuade for something, then the students were given 10 or so minutes for prewriting, maybe one hour minutes for a rough draft, 30 minutes for a final draft, and roughly 20 minutes to revise and edit this draft before it is collected to be scrutinized by people the students have never even met. The entire process took just two hours. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) position statement regarding Machine Scoring gives insight as to why this is a problem. It states, “Research on the assessment of student writing consistently shows that high-stakes writing tests alter the normal conditions of writing by denying students the opportunity to think, read, talk with others, address real audiences, develop ideas, and revise their emerging texts over time” (NCTE Position Statements). A two-hour standardized writing process is simply not long enough for students to write to their best ability and go through the entire writing process. Can standardized testing in any subject really measure the level of knowledge a student has about a subject? Here’s a short video that addresses some of the issues about standardized testing.

So how can we accurately measure and assess a students writing ability? I think we can start to gauge how to do this if we first look at how we assess writing in the classroom. The position statement on writing assessment by the Conference on College Composition and Communication goes over what writing assessments look like in the classroom. The CCCC states that, in the context of the classroom, “writing assessment should be part of the highly social activity within the community of faculty and students in the class” (CCCC Position Statements). Some of these social activities include, “A period of ungraded work (prior to the completion of graded work), and more than one opportunity to demonstrate outcomes” (CCCC Position Statements). The problem with standardized writing assessments, which have the ability to shape where people may end up in life, is they do not include these social activities. Writing must be graded differently during these standardized assessments. The study of writing is so vastly different from math, science, and history so we need to stop grading it like those subjects. Writing is not like solving an equation or remembering a date; Because of the complexity and cognition it takes to write and go through the writing process, it usually takes more than one try to be successful at writing.

The entire position statement about writing assessment seems to differ with how we grade students during standardized writing assessments. One point that really stuck out to me was their statement, “Best assessment practice engages students in contextualized, meaningful writing” (CCCC Position Statements). They go on to affirm that these “writing tasks” should be engaging to the students. Because students hardly get to choose what they get to write about during these standardized assessments, this practice is not implemented when students surely want their writing to be their best. In my opinion, there are many ways to improve the standardized writing assessments, but looking at these position statements is a great place to start deciding how we can set students up to exhibit their best work during a writing assessment. Without this awareness, students may continue to resent these tests and never show their true writing potential.

Works Cited

“CCCC Position Statements.” Conference on College Composition, 22 October 2018,

“NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.” Nation Council of Teachers of English, 20 April 2013,

“Do Standardized Tests Do More Harm Than Good?” YouTube, uploaded by Origin of Everything, 15 May 2018,

3 thoughts on “How Do We Assess Writing Properly?”

  1. I cringe just reading about writing assessments! I have so many memories of the exact scenario you described of prewriting through final draft edits under a time crunch. I never really thought about it before this course, but now the process seems so foreign compared to everything we are learning about the practice of writing. I have a professor this semester that has mentioned low-stakes writing versus high-stakes writing, and we always have the opportunity to model the assignment expectations before turning in compositions for a formal grade. We discuss them in class, talk amongst peers, blog write to begin exploring the concepts, and then formally write the soon to be graded essay.

    I believe this practice makes a difference in student writing as well as affects their confidence level in writing. I will never forget the days of sitting in my high school English composition course and having to write a five-paragraph theme paper within the class period. I think it is great that organizations like the CCCC are putting forth principles of teaching writing that represent different experiences than what I had in high school.

  2. Danny,

    I was looking through my memories on Facebook just before, and six years ago I wrote “Feeling down because of my midterm grade :/ P.S. I hate multiple choice.” I can’t remember exactly what class I was talking about, but when I look at my schedule for Fall 2013 I was taking: Film History and Theory, Intro to English Studies, Theatre, and World Literature. Regardless of what class it was, it’s clear that NONE of those classes should have multiple choice built into them. My mum commented on my status with, “Multiple choice is a bad way to test knowledge.” And she’s 100% right. I think honestly I don’t hate the timed writing as much as I just straight up hate multiple choice. While yes it’s not 100% practical to have someone right in a timed and heightened environment, I think it’s got some positives and negatives. We never had to do it in class when I was in high school in New Zealand, but we did have to do it in our end of year exams. I didn’t mind it, purely because I was writing and was able to explain things out properly. Standardized testing and multiple choice in a university setting just seems unreasonable to me. At no point in your life will you be tested like that. It’s impractical and stupid. Yes I understand it makes it easier to grade etc etc, and especially when you’ve got a large class, but like the classes I took six years ago, it just isn’t practical to test that way.

  3. Danny,
    I’m pretty much in the camp that standardized testing is ineffective, especially when it comes to writing. These tests, frankly, don’t provide enough time to let students breathe and figure out their process. In the case of students who are effective writers and might know their writing process well, they may be forced to chuck their usual practices out the window in order to get through these standardized exams in time.

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