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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

A Quality Approach to Writing Assessment

An elementary school used the TQM technique of data gathering to improve its school writing program.

When teachers report student progress in writing at Centennial Elementary in Evans, Colorado, the faculty meeting starts to look like a rally. Cheers go up as groups plot improvements on the graphs and charts posted around the room. Colleagues share high-fives because they have not only reached goals, but they've also exceeded them. Staff members share an enthusiasm and focus that simply did not exist in the school before.

A Quality Perspective

  • What do we really do with assessments and the data we collect
  • How do we report assessment information to parents?
  • How do we use the data we gather in our school improvement planning process?
  • How will we use the data to help students meet intended learner outcomes?
Staff members decided that part of their problem was that they did not collect any data often enough for it to be really useful. In addition, they knew they lacked useful tools for collecting data and reporting what was happening in the classroom. Everyone needed concrete information, not just impressions.

Getting Help

A business consultant from IBM, Patricia Smith, was very helpful in describing the task, creating the conditions, and guiding the work. She encouraged the staff to build a “House of Quality” for assessing progress, and she explained many TQM strategies, emphasizing how staff could look at information.
In one instance, she showed teachers how to connect writing progress to their action plans. She asked teachers to make a list of all the factors that kept students from becoming good writers. She then asked them to circle one or two items they could control and to incorporate them into their daily plans. She also explained how teachers could track progress on these goals through graphic displays.
Centennial's teachers agreed that they did have a good evaluation tool, a holistic writing assessment that could be used formatively. The district had adopted a seven-point rubric, based on one developed in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. This holistic writing assessment evaluates students on a scale of one to seven. A score of four is a demonstration of competency, but it reflects high competency, not minimum skills. It was decided to use this assessment to test students monthly, report results at meetings, evaluate progress toward goals, and plan new instructional strategies.
In the past, Centennial had taken a writing sample in April and sent it to the central office for raters to grade. Some writing assessment was also done before parent-teacher conferences. But teachers at Centennial did not track student progress together, nor did they share information or ask for help from one another.
Now, Centennial has a schoolwide goal of getting 95 percent of students on or above grade level in writing by the time they leave elementary school. Each month, teachers assess students and report the results at the faculty meeting so all can see how progress is being made toward the goal. The graphs and charts generate enthusiasm and a picture of improvement for everyone to see—including parents and the community. Because this work requires teachers to expose their productivity, successes, and failures regularly and publicly, the experience needed to be put into place in such a way that it produced as little anxiety as possible. Data are reported and recorded by grade levels to relieve some of the pressure on individual teachers. The reporting, recording, and assessing focuses on continuous improvement with end results in mind.

What's Different?

The new reporting and recording progress has operationalized outcome-based education for us at Centennial; we can see results. Teachers test, regroup, teach, test, and regroup again.
Collecting and sharing writing assessment data regularly has also offered insight into what other students in other grades are doing. A culture of collegiality continues to grow at the monthly meetings. The process has encouraged cross-boundary, cross-grade collaboration that had not regularly occurred before. Now it's not uncommon to hear comments like this: “Some of my accelerated kids are ready for work on research skills. Are you teaching that yet? If I take some of your kids who need work on basic editing, would you take some of my students and give them the expanded opportunities they need?”
Teachers agree that it would be too much right now to gather data in every subject. Within a few months of starting the project, though, we discovered we had useful assessment instruments for student behavior, attendance, and a program integrating the work of the library/media center and research skills. It's clear that our data gathering has benefits beyond assessment: empowerment, collaboration, cross-grade planning and teaching, and a renewed energy for teaching and achieving results. As we add new assessments, we will find ways to manage the workload because of its benefits for faculty and students.

Joanne Andrade has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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