The Potential Genius of Written Response Assessments

As a language arts teacher, written response assessments are the bread and butter of my curriculum. I enjoy the challenge of crafting a succinct yet sufficiently explanatory prompt that teases even the most difficult to motivate students to action with essays brimming with evidence of critical and passionate thinking. Last year, one of my most compelling written response assessments was a simple yet provocative summative essay prompt following a study of the novel The Outsiders; “Does nature or nurture influence a person’s actions and motivations? Include evidence from the novel The Outsiders to support your viewpoint”. This simple prompt produced reams of writing and passionate debate as students struggled to clarify their own reasoning and thinking.

Unfortunately, my moments of creative written response assessment genius are few and far between. Indeed, Chappuis, Stiggins, Chappuis and Arter (2012) warn that although it is appears that written response assessments “…may seem fairly easy to create- …we may not get what we expected or hoped for without carefully thought-out questions and plans for scoring the answers” (p. 169). By scoring, we can infer rubrics. In the past, creating rubrics has been a tedious and frustrating endeavor for me. While I certainly recognized the value of providing rubrics to students before giving a formative or summative assessment task, I have always dreaded their creation. I had difficulty capturing the essence of what I was attempting to measure. Chappuis, et. al. describes rubrics as “…a detailed description of the features of work that constitute quality” (p. 183). I intuitively knew what standard of quality I was looking for, but I had difficulty articulating my expectations. In hindsight, I believe this was due to an unrealistic expectation (entirely of my own doing) that each assessment necessitated the development of a unique rubric. Imagine my joy when I read the author’s definitive stance that, “We recommend the use of general rubrics over task-specific rubrics whenever practical for several reasons” (p. 184). As my friends in Egypt would exclaim, “Il-humdallah! (Thanks be to God!). Have my days of torment passed? Well, most likely not. But, I can say that the practical explanations and approaches discussed in the reading coupled with the available rubric examples on the accompanying CD have provided a sense of relief. But, before I delve into my artifact for this week, it is important to enumerate why general or what I like to thing of as “generic” rubrics are to be coveted (p. 184):

  1. Task-specific rubrics can’t be handed out to students in advance because they give away the “answer”.
  2. You have to create a new one for each assignment.
  3. With task-specific rubrics, it’s easy to award points to features that are idiosyncratic to the specific assignment and not essential to the accomplishment of the learning target.

As I contemplate each of these three points, I can certainly see the logic. There have been times that I haven’t provided my scoring rubric to students with a written response formative assessment for precisely the reasoning stated in point 1; it would give provide too much information and sully the results. As noted, I’ve already stated my difficulties with generating a new rubric for each assignment but I hadn’t ever considered the inherent undermining of reaching learning targets through “idiosyncratic awarding of points” that are non-essential; this is my ah-ha moment for this week.

With these thoughts in the forefront of my mind, I decided to create an Assessment Blueprint for one of my summative assessment from last year. I introduced a new novel to the Grade 8 curriculum; Speak by Laurie Halsey Anderson. Some of the students hated this novel while others found it provocative and compelling. This was typically determined along gender lines (the protagonist is female) but by the end, most of even my harshest critics found a way to appreciate the message.  My assessment blueprint of one summative assessment is a formal business letter written from the point-of-view of the ‘school guidance counselor’ to the main character. I chose this because after reviewing (and mapping) the various formative and summative assessments for this unit, I liked that it included both a reasoning and knowledge, learning target. My original written response assessment was the following;

You will write a 1-2 page letter, taking on the perspective of a school counselor, to Melinda as she goes through her isolation and depression. You may choose to be sympathetic, clueless, or critical; it’s your choice. Be sure to offer ‘suggestions’ to Melinda regarding her grades, lack of connection to school, personal appearance and general bad attitude. Your letter must follow standard business letter format.

They say that hindsight is 20/20. Based on Chappuis et. al. (2012) recommendations, of items that combine knowledge mastery with reasoning, I would simplify and clarify my prompt to the following recommendations:

  1. Set the Context

We have been reading the novel “Speak” and have discussed indicators or examples of Melinda’s isolation and depression. Additionally, we have discussed the components of a business letter format when writing.

2.   Describe the Reasoning Task

After reading the story “Speak,” write a letter to Melinda from the Guidance Counselor detailing suggestions that will help her adapt to high school.

3.   Point the Way to an Appropriate Response

Utilize at least three relevant pieces of evidence from the text that explains the counselors’ position regarding Melinda’s experience thus far in the novel. Make sure your letter follows the structure of a business format letter.

I think that my written response assessment is much clearer and concise then the previous version. Additionally, I haven’t “given away the answer” because I eliminated, “Be sure to offer ‘suggestions’ to Melinda regarding her grades, lack of connection to school, personal appearance and general bad attitude”. This was a rookie mistake.

I also created two rubrics to score this assessment; Business Letter Writing Rubric and Combined Reasoning Rubric. While I did do some online research of different examples for the business letter rubric, I adapted this rubric to assess the elements of a product only. My second rubric targeted student’s reasoning abilities, both inference and evaluation. Again, I looked at some outside resources for inspiration (specifically, the accompanying CD from the text), but was able to create a hybrid that was also generic (or general); this way, I can easily adapt/modify this rubric for later use.

It is important to note that collegial collaboration can present practical challenges. In an international school setting, I have always been the only one; the only Grade 5 teacher and the only middle school language arts teacher. This makes collaboration in terms of assessment tools and resources impractical. When I was a Grade 8 US history teacher in Southern Oregon, the other US history were decidedly anti-collaboration; they had been teaching far longer than I and just weren’t, for the most part, interested in having the conversation let alone taking the time. I guess I have largely figured teaching out on my own, with a few mentors scattered here and there; much of my practice has been a mix of intuition and perspiration. I look forward to the day that I am teaching in a larger international school and have a bevy of motivated and “big picture” minded colleagues teaching my same grade level and content area. This is when the magical potential of collaboration can happen.

References

Chappuis, J., Stiggins, R., Chappuis, S., & Arter, J. (2012).  Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right, using it well. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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