Increasing Standards-Based Assessment Scores by Improving Writing


December 8, 2015


The first results are coming in from the nationwide tests linked to Common Core and other college and career readiness (CCR) standards, and it’s enough to give educators, parents, students, and community members pause. In Oregon, 43 to 55 percent of students in grades 3 to 8 did not meet standards in English language arts (ELA), as measured by the Smarter Balanced assessments. Even more worrisome, over 80 percent of limited English proficient students and students with disabilities did not meet the state’s proficiency levels. Oregon is not alone: from California to Massachusetts to Alaska, results on the Smarter Balanced, PARCC, and other new state tests show significant numbers of schools struggling with the higher standards.

What can we do to improve the situation? One strategy might be to beef up standards-based writing instruction, particularly by integrating reading and writing and by focusing more on non-narrative text. Performance tasks in the Smarter Balanced assessment demand that students demonstrate their writing skills by crafting stories or essays in response to several rich sources, including texts from a variety of content areas. Depending on the grade, students must show knowledge of different forms of writing—from narrative to informative (i.e., explanatory) to argumentative or opinion. Likewise, PARCC describes writing as a “key area” and reflects shifts in the Common Core that call on students to show writing skills grounded in evidence from literary and informational texts. Many other new state tests require a similar focus on reading and writing about informational texts.

Elements of writing that students are scored on mirror the characteristics found in traits-based writing, a model that Education Northwest pioneered three decades ago. The tests consider how well a student:

  • Clearly states a claim about the topic, maintains focus, and addresses alternate and opposing claims
  • Organizes ideas so they logically flow from the introduction to conclusion using effective transitions
  • Provides evidence from sources
  • Expresses ideas using precise language that is appropriate for the audience and purpose
  • Follows conventions such as word usage, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling

To support student success in writing, teachers don’t need to change what they teach—the building blocks or characteristics of high-quality writing haven’t changed. Teachers, however, do need to teach more intensively, focusing attention on how students can apply more writing skills independently, in combination, and in response to increasingly complex texts and tasks.

For example, in the Smarter Balanced practice task for third-graders, students read two articles on being an astronaut and then must develop their own thesis for an informational article about that topic. This requires more complex, independent thinking than simply responding to a provided prompt about, say, the training needed to become an astronaut. Third-graders must know what a main idea is, and how to generate one based on readings that don’t tell them explicitly what’s important. The task also requires them to use both sources to support their idea. Of course, this means students must know how to find and use relevant information to support a thesis. Finally, the third-graders need to be able to organize their writing into a clear, coherent, multiparagraph article.

In our newly updated 6+1 Trait® Writing and other writing-focused professional development offerings, we build teachers’ ability to deliver the type of intensive, concentrated instruction their students need to succeed with these challenging writing tasks. In addition to helping educators hone a classroom approach to writing that focuses on more in-depth analysis and metacognition, we help guide them through a unit or a year of instruction: Where do we start, and how do we proceed, to gradually build our students’ ability to work through the reading and writing process successfully? Particularly at the high school level, we often find that the best way to create and deliver this intensive instruction is to use writing to drive a schoolwide improvement effort. Content-area teachers play an important role, learning to incorporate literacy skills specialized to history, science, mathematics, and literature into their instruction.

The results of using a more focused, trait-based writing model can be powerful to observe. We’ll see more classrooms where students and teachers are examining and discussing exemplary texts. Teachers will give more short assignments, across content areas, in which students imitate or play off these texts. And, teachers will model for their students each step of the writing process when facing a complex task: taking productive notes on multiple sources; planning, drafting, and revising their work; and continually checking their texts against the well-known hallmarks of high-quality writing. In the end, all teachers will be contributing to schoolwide growth in student achievement. And, most important, students will gain a better footing on the road to college success.

Find out more about 6+1 Trait® Writing and our upcoming winter institutes.

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