Formulas FTW

In a stack of papers called Grading.

  • Jun
  • 27
  • 2008

I’ll expand on these thoughts later, but I want to help this conversation about English assessment grow as much as I can. Eric Hoefler brings up some interesting thoughts, admittedly from a distance that might skew his interpretations. His theorizing feels spot on at first read and that’s a good place to begin. A closer look reveals some deviled details, to borrow the saying from Eric, that will likely bring us to familiar ground when discussing the use of a math assessment technique in language arts. Again, Eric admits to these difficulties, but maybe we can all solve this together.

For now, an idea I’ve been kicking around since about May showed up in a bit of what Eric wrote:

In other words, don’t be afraid to be provide formulas with the goal of moving students beyond these formulas as their skills develop …. On the other hand, please don’t beat up and enslave your students with these formulas: they’re steps, training wheels, meant to be left behind.

My first submission to this discussion revolves around formulas. Figure out the types of writing to teach each semester, put together formulas for each, pick out the concepts that need to be taught, pull good and bad examples of each of those concepts, and set the kids loose to produce. A failing grade on this writing style still isn’t as specific as a failing grade would be in Dan’s gradebook. Did the student fail because of grammar issues, unfocused points, poor explanation, too little evidence, factual inaccuracies, or something else? Maybe the comment on the paper will tell that. But this starts the journey toward a grade that suggests something about the student’s competency more specific than “Essay #2.”

That could be the crux of solving the trouble with English assessment: writing to the formula should result in a passing grade every time. Did the student use one of the four discussed attention grabbers, mention the title and the author, briefly summarize the text, move from general to specific, and include a thesis as the final sentence? The paper (or perhaps just the first paragraph) earns at least a 70%. Beating up and enslaving is not happening here, but neither is complete disregard for the scaffold. If they can ride that training-wheeled bike like nobody’s business by the end of the year, they should earn a passing grade. Not all students will progress past the formula and that’s OK.

For about the last three years, I haven’t put a page limit on my essay assignments. “It needs to be as long as it needs to be.” And I firmly believe that. However, I also believe that’s an invitation for many students to write a single page, think as little as possible, and under-explain their reasoning. In short, not having a page limit is an invitation to fail. I know full well that three pages is an arbitrary limit, that a point can be argued successfully in two pages and unsuccessfully in four. But I also know that three pages is just about what will typically get the job done for this particular writing assessment, that three pages sends a message to students, that limits tend to encourage thinking that freedom often does not.

An idea that occurred to me while writing: Should teachers accept only mastery for a passing grade? We should encourage mastery, certainly, but if all we get is vague familiarity, is that enough?


1. Eric Hoefler says:

[6/28/2008 - 9:46 am]

Hi Todd,

Thanks for the response and the willingness to get some conversation going on this.

I probably should have been more clear about my thoughts around formulas, but that post was getting way too long! I was thinking less about types of writings than about specific moves within various types of writings. Some examples of what I mean can be found in works like Gerald Graff’s They Say / I Say and Rosenwasser and Stephen’s Writing Analytically. Though, depending on the level of the student, types may be helpful, too.

I tried to get some of my ideas together around this issue in a post I titled “Removing the Training Wheels.”

You highlight a large part of the difficulty, though: when “assessing” a piece of writing, there are many things a teacher could focus on. In general, I argue for a progression of focus: concept/idea, organization, presentation (as in, arguments and examples used, areas of focus, etc.), grammar and style, citation and format … the interpretation of each varies by the type of writing (analytical essay, short fiction, etc.). All of these could be components of a rubric, but I think students need to build and can only develop in one area at a time. Part of the failure I see in many English classes is that they’re asked to everything, all at once, over and over again … resulting in only marginal change in any one area.

My too-short response to your final question about only mastery earning a passing grade is “no” (which I think is your answer too, if I’m reading you right). A passing grade (or any grade) should be dependent on whether or not the student met a certain level of mastery for the skills, relevant to the course, the time in the course, the focus for the paper, and the stage of the writing’s development. In other words, what counts as an “A” in 9th grade isn’t the same as 12th grade; in the beginning of the course vs. the end; a first draft of an analytical reading response vs. the third draft of a creative response; etc.

This sounds obvious, but I’ve seen at least two problems with this:
– Teachers aren’t sure what mastery at a specific grade level / time of year / stage of writing should look like.
– Teachers have a hard time thinking about the writing in terms of the student’s development and, instead, measure it against their sense of “good writing” generally (or a rubric geared toward the same).

I plan on being more specific about assessment in a follow-up post on my blog, but it may have to wait until after my vacation!

Thanks again for your thoughts and for starting this conversation. I look forward to hearing and learning more from you and others.

2. Todd says:

[6/28/2008 - 6:53 pm]

Your comment about English teachers demanding students to develop in all areas is exactly the trouble I ran into this year. I tried to only assess one thing, but in so doing found out that how effectively one thing is done depends so heavily on how successfully another thing is done. You can’t evaluate how successful the thesis is without also looking at how successful the main points are. Those main points can’t be evaluated absent the assessment of supporting evidence. And so it goes.

The second of your two closing problems is tricky. It implies that a grade of B for Mortimer is different than a grade of B for Petulance. Petulance improved so much from Essay 1 to 2. Meanwhile, Mortimer stayed at the same level of development. Does Petulance then earn a higher grade? If the grade is based on development and Mortimer hasn’t developed at all, what happens?

Your too-short response is tricky, too, because all kinds of subjectivity enters into the equation there.

3. Eric Hoefler says:

[6/29/2008 - 5:13 am]

Hi Todd … A few responses:

You can’t evaluate how successful the thesis is without also looking at how successful the main points are. etc.

I completely agree with you that “how effectively one thing is done depends so heavily on how successfully another thing is done.” And, if I were evaluating a piece of writing as a general piece of writing, the piece would stand or fail for me based in large part on how effectively all the parts worked together

But I don’t think it follows that we can’t focus in our assessment. I would say two things here. First, I think you absolutely can look just at a thesis statement, just at the arguments, etc. So what if the student starts with a great idea and clearly stated purpose but blows the rest of it? If what we’re focused on is finding better ways to communicate purpose, then they’re doing well in that area.

Also, when I said focus, I was talking more about focusing on the stage in the process (idea, organization, presentation, etc.) than on a thesis statement or arguments, etc. In other words, my first concern when working with students is that they develop some fluency in their writing … that they learn to push until as much of their thinking on a subject is out there as possible. At this point, I don’t care about anything else that’s happening in the writing. Once they’re fluency is up, I focus on helping them recognize the central ideas in the writings they’re producing, still without caring about any other aspects of the writing. Once they’re producing writings with some bulk (due to fluency) and can then take that bulk and pull out some of their big ideas, then we start thinking about the quality of the ideas and ways to improve them. And so on down the line until the writings are being evaluated for the whole range of concerns. This happens not in one piece of writing, but over many.

As for the subjectivity, it’s not relevant to the student, but to the stage of the work, the current focus in the course, and the overall mastery expected at that grade level. As Petulance develops, of course she gets ever-closer to the mastery for that grade level. If Mortimer doesn’t, he doesn’t get any closer. If Petulance is great at having a clear purpose but can’t articulate it well, then we discover that as we shift our focus. If Mortimer has a real stylistic flair but gets so involved in the language that his purpose is never clear, we discover that, too. All of these things are individual problems, and this approach lets me know which student struggles with which area. And since I’ve led them through in stages, not all at once, I can catch the problem as it becomes apparent. But again, an A in a course is an A in terms of the focus, the stage in the process, and the course … but not in terms of one student against another.

As for eliminating subjectivity … I think we need to recognize subjectivity will always be a factor when evaluating writing. Still, an effective English department can and should consider how to move students through four years of instruction by establishing benchmarks along the way. Otherwise, we end up asking students to practice failure by saying “here’s great writing” and asking them to “do it” over and over again, marking all the ways they fail each time. They need steps to work towards, the empowerment of succeeding at each step, and the specific focus that allows teachers to help students at each stage so that they can reach the next. This is Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” writ large across four years.

It’s hard in a blog post and some comments to discuss the details, implications, modifications, etc. But here’s to hoping we can at least make some progress. Thanks again for entering this discussion!

4. Todd says:

[6/29/2008 - 8:17 am]

But they aren’t doing well in the area of expressing purpose if the actual purpose of the writing (based on the body paragraphs) is chocolate chips and their thesis discusses pineapple. And what happens if you talk to the student and he really thought he was discussing race cars? This happens and this is why I find myself not being able to assess each piece independent of the other.

How do you determine that “as much of their thinking on a subject is out there as possible”? That sounds like the arbitrary page limit I’ve recommitted myself to.

It’s an interesting idea to think of evaluating the different stages of the process. I’m not sure what that evaluation looks like, though. As you get more and more sophisticated with the stages of development, they rely more and more upon each other. Agreeing on the stages and exactly what those stages constitute is a first step.

As department co-chair, I’ve tried really hard to have the conversation across the department of what constitutes good writing and how to foster it. The discussion is stymied at almost every turn due to so many factors. We haven’t been able to reach consensus in the six years I’ve been trying. The idea of benchmarks sounds good, but I’ve yet to see it carried out successfully (in a school near me).