Can’t Separate

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Apr
  • 07
  • 2008

In theory, my idea for writing assessment this year was good. In practicality, it did not work.

I started off with the idea of assessing writing for only one thing at a time. Every so often, I’d assign a piece of writing that evaluated several of those skills at once. As I tried to keep that going, the realization hit me that when evaluating writing, you’re never looking at one thing. You are always looking at how several different things work together to form the whole. Here’s an example:

Looking Only For Evidence

A piece of writing is assigned with the intent of assessing how well students can use evidence to support an argument. That’s the only thing to be assessed: use of evidence. Whether or not the ideas are sound, it’s only the evidence that matters. Does the evidence work in this paper? I sit down with a stack of paragraphs.


The only way I see to view the strength of evidence is to look at how well or poorly that evidence is explained. A quotation or anecdote on its own is evidence of nothing. Only once it’s tied into a larger purpose does it become evidence. So now I’m judging the evidence in the paragraph based, at least in part, on the quality of the explanation. I’m evaluating the evidence used and the explanation written.

Taking this a step further, in order to assess either the evidence or the explanation, I need to evaluate the strength of the thesis to which both are related. If there’s no connection between the thesis and the evidence, then it’s weak evidence for sure. And it’s the explanation that provides that connection. Now I’m evaluating the evidence, explanation, and thesis.

Same As It Ever Was

This is no different than the way I’ve evaluated writing since day one. Chances are, you feel the same. I’m not finding a way to separate evidence from explanation from thesis. And if I’m not able to evaluate a single skill at a time in writing, how can I let the students know which skills they need to work on and let me know which skills I need to reteach?

I started off by listing the first paragraph as “Writing 2.2.c – Evidence” in my gradebook, just as I said I would. Quickly, I stopped doing that because it’s a lie. I’m not looking exclusively at the quality of the evidence. I don’t think it’s possible to fairly assess writing in that way. I’m looking at how it all ties in together, just like I’ve always done. That’s how you evaluate writing, right?

Do you see the problem I’m pointing out? Do you see a way around it? How can I read for evidence independent of explanation? And how can the strength of evidence be determined if the strength of the thesis which it is supposed to be supporting is not considered?

Name Droppin’

This all stems from Dan’s ideas about math assessment, by the way.


1. Monica says:

[4/8/2008 - 3:11 pm]

Hi there.

I don’t think you can evaluate just the use of evidence. Their evidence must support an argument of their creation. If their argument isn’t sound, or their words are too jumbled to make sense of what they’re trying to say, then there’s no way to effectively evaluate their use of evidence.

Just last week I said to a student: “You’re not using this source to its full potential. In fact, what you use here isn’t supporting your argument at all if what you’re saying is ‘x’. You would be better to use *this* chunk from this source rather than that one.” While that sort of implies that one can evaluate evidence independently, what I discovered through this conversation was that the student didn’t mean what was worded and that’s why her argument and evaluation/discussion of the evidence refuted/or didn’t support her thesis.

So that doesn’t make much sense as I look at it now, but it sure did at the time. However, I stand by my claim that teachers cannot evaluate evidence independently of the rest of the argument, thesis, use of rhetorical devices, syntax, punctuation, usage, and all the other “stuff” we get caught up in when assessing student writing.

2. Todd says:

[4/9/2008 - 8:18 pm]

I’m thinking there’s really no way to evaluate any of these three things independent of the other. I think your closing claim is right on: it all works together and we need to assess the entire product.