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December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4

When Parents and Teachers Create Writing Standards

Imagine parents and teachers sitting together at tables in a large room. They are reading folders of student writing and making comments like: "This writer really engages the reader." "Just look at this sentence variety." "She elaborates on her topic with such rich details." "Let me share this piece with you you've got to see this!"
Such a scene occurred here in Atlanta. After collecting writing samples from every school in our district, we met to discuss what constitutes good writing in each grade and to select examples that could serve as "anchors" for new writing standards. The two week workshop was lively and punctuated with strong responses from both teachers and parents.
Essentially, we were taking up Grant Wiggins' (1991) challenge, when he asked, "Why don't districts publish the best teacher assessments and student products at all grades? A teacher must know and use genuine exemplars to improve the performance and raise the sights of all student performers."

High Growth, High Standards

Gwinnett County Public Schools, one of the metro school systems just outside Atlanta, is among the fastest growing school systems in the United States. In the past 10 years, our enrollment has risen from 44,000 to 84,000. In 1994, at the time of the standards setting effort, we had 76,000 students enrolled in 64 schools.
Even before we began our standards project, writing was the focus of ongoing staff development. Because of the Georgia mandated writing assessment, our language arts teachers must emphasize writing ability in grades 3, 5, 8, and 11. What we wanted, however, was to promote writing competence for students at every grade level and in every subject social studies, science, and math as well as language arts.
We faced several challenges. First, our rapid growth has required us to hire some 400-500 new teachers each year, which makes it difficult to keep up with ongoing staff development in writing instruction. Second, because state writing assessment focuses on language arts topics and selected grade levels, many teachers may not have felt responsible for improving student writing.
Finally, there were critical parents to consider. In calls to the superintendent and letters to the local paper, parents' criticisms of student writing persisted. This occurred despite a school district culture in which teachers value good writing and the state assesses it. (We proudly send our student writing to local newspapers and display it in school hallways and publications.) We had informed parents about the developmental aspects of language growth invented spelling, drafts not edited for readers, and journal writing, for example. Parents still failed to see the rigor in our writing program. Some doubted we were even teaching grammar, spelling, and other writing basics.

Collecting Tangible Examples

Knowing how assessment influences and often changes instruction (Khattri et al. 1995), we set out to develop a tool that we could use to teach and assess writing in our K 12 classrooms. As Wiggins (1991) says, "Such real standards enable all performers to understand their daily work, and how to monitor and raise their standards."
We wanted the tool to be useful to teachers in order to show students what constitutes quality writing, teachers must first be clear about this themselves. We also wanted the tool to be useful to students in their self assessment. "Students who are unsure of what is considered quality work don't know what to aim for and can't be sure their products measure up" (O'Neil 1994). Finally, we wanted a tool that would be useful to parents in evaluating their own child's writing.
We began by requesting each school to provide us with samples of student writing on topics in language arts, science, social studies, and math. We wanted a range of papers that exemplified the best writers and the most struggling writers at each grade level. We further requested that the papers reflect work completed at the end of the year, and examples of both naturally occurring writing (not tested); and work that reflected the full range of classroom resources (dictionaries, computers, grammar handbooks, peer and teacher feedback, and so on). Through a matrix sampling process, teachers sent us highly rated, average, and poorly written work done at their respective grade levels.
We knew it would be essential to involve parents in the standards setting process. Principals got involved by publicizing this opportunity to parents. We had just survived a year of intense scrutiny of our instructional program by our community, and parents welcomed involvement in any improvement effort. More than 125 parents volunteered. Of those, we selected a group of 50 geographically representative parents (rural, urban, and so on). They joined 30 teachers in setting the standards during a two week workshop.
Using both the state's rubrics for writing and the anchor papers, we trained parents and teachers to score papers holistically that is, not trait by trait. We then selected a number of papers to represent levels 1 4 of the state's rubric for middle schools and high schools and the six stages for elementary schools. (The six stages are 1 emerging, 2 developing, 3 focusing, 4 experimenting, 5 engaging, and the highest rating 6 extending.)
To validate whether the anchor papers were on target, we submitted our high school papers to the University of Georgia for review. There, the director of the freshman writing program concluded that the students who had produced the most highly rated papers were on track for admission to that university and that writers of the lower rated papers would need further academic assistance to be eligible for admission.
The final result of our district process: our writing anchors tangible examples of students' writing abilities at each grade level. This standards document is now available to all students, teachers, and parents from our schools, as well as at the 12 public libraries in our area
.

Training the Teachers

Our next and formidable challenge was to implement the writing standards with more than 4,000 professional staff members. The writing standards committee organized a training session for this purpose.
Using practice papers, we asked faculty members to examine the criteria for judging the quality of student writing. We then scored random sets of papers holistically. We constantly asked participants whether they could see differences in performance based on the criteria for good writing. We persisted until we heard comments like, "The criteria help me feel like I am evaluating my students more accurately and fairly."
Teachers from many schools proceeded from the general overview session to a more in depth inservice. They started by scoring random sets of anchor papers from their grade level, then compared their ratings to those of the writing standards committee. Next, they worked in grade level groups to score their own students' papers. Discussions inevitably centered on how to teach to improve student writing, with comments like, "What would you do for this writer?" or "This gives me an idea for a mini lesson on sentence variety."
Teachers found that by working in pairs and reading the papers aloud, they could avoid being swayed by strictly surface features, such as spelling, punctuation, and handwriting, and focus on more basic issues content, organization, language, imagery, and impact on readers. For many teachers, the group work (see fig. 1) confirmed what they already knew about teaching writing. (For example, students write better when they consistently apply specific criteria to their work, and students working on specific skills benefit by doing so in small, flexible groups.)

Figure 1. Grade 5, Stage 5: The Engaging Writer

Example of a writing anchor, including criteria from the Georgia education department's writing standard, an excerpt from a student's work exemplifying that stage, and an annotation written by Gwinnett County (Georgia) teachers.

Criteria:

  • Topic well developed.

  • Clear beginning, middle, and end.

  • Organization sustains the writer's purpose.

  • Engages the reader.

  • Effective use of varied language and sentence patterns.

  • Errors in surface features do not interfere with meaning.

Discovering Food Chains. First of all to discover a food-chain we had to make a habitat. To make a habitat first of all we made one for the crickets we were getting, so we put in soil. We put it in an empty terrerium. Next we planted seeds so the crickets would have something to eat. We put in wheat seeds, grass seeds, mustard seeds, and radish seeds.

Next we got our crickets, but before we got our crickets we had to put in our cricket houses. We put on the cover and put them under the light to watch them grow.

When the crickets came they went to the terrariom...

Annotation: The writer uses a clear introduction with sequential steps to communicate the learning that was acquired during this scientific experiment. The organization of the paragraphs with smooth transitions allows the reader to easily follow the writing.

Enlisting the Teaching Tool

As all good assessment does, our writing standards not only monitor student writing but help to improve it. Even 1st and 2nd graders compare their writing to the anchor papers. By the 3rd grade, peer editing takes on new meaning. Students begin to rate one another's papers and engage in detailed conversations about ways to improve their writing. Last year, one student looked at her spring ratings and asked with exasperation, "I got all Stage 5 ratings again; what's it going to take to get a Stage 6?" Her question gave her teacher an opportunity to teach.
As part of our general effort to gauge instructional effectiveness, we collect a writing sample from every child from kindergarten to 5th grade each fall and spring. Three different certified staff members rate each sample, a practice that ensures internal validity and also fosters communication among teachers at different grade levels. To ensure student growth, each child's writings are passed on to the next year's teacher. By the end of the next year we expect to see each child performing at a higher level, and we expect all teachers to facilitate that growth.
Teachers or other staff members can use the standards to collect data on student growth throughout the year, thereby revealing what percentage of our students are writing at each level and how many are improving. The anchor papers reveal what language skills are being learned in each grade.
Such data on student performance are critical for school improvement efforts. To quote Wiggins (1991) once more,We need concrete benchmarks for judging student work at essential tasks, and we need to feel duty bound by the results if they are unsatisfactory. That means meeting self imposed targets relating to the quality of work expected from all students, not just those in advanced classes.
One elementary school in our district has gone on to create a schoolwide literacy plan that sets writing expectations for all students in grades K 5. Part of the plan was to train parents to work collaboratively with teachers as raters. The school held two evening training sessions at which parents evaluated the strengths and shortcomings of student papers. "When we started we weren't sure how many parents would show up or even return for the second evening," the assistant principal recalls, "but now we have 26 parents trained to work with the writing standards. That's very encouraging."
When parents ask certain questions about their child's writing, we can now show them the anchor papers for that grade level and the accompanying criteria and annotations from our county's writing standards (see fig. 1). Thus, we often have a ready response when a parent comes to us and asks, for example, "How do I know my daughter's writing is good for her age? She is experimenting with new vocabulary and developing organization in her writing, but she misspells words and has sentence fragments."
One parent said that writing standards have given her a tool and thus more confidence to encourage her children's progress. "The more knowledgeable I become about their writing, the more supportive and enthusiastic I am about their overall work," she remarked.
We have learned that a partnership between teachers, parents, and students is critical to such a standards setting effort, and that forging such a partnership is not only possible, but practical.
References

Khattri, N., M.B. Kane, and A. Reeve (1995). "How Performance Assessments Affect Teaching and Learning." Educational Leadership 53, 3:80 83.

O'Neil, J. (1994). "Making Assessment Meaningful." ASCD Update 36, 6:1 5.

Wiggins, G. (1991). "Standards, Not Standardization: Evoking Quality Student Work." Educational Leadership 48, 5:18 25.

Kate Kirby-Linton has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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