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Assessment of Student Writing

Mar 28, 2016 by

Will Fitzhugh
National Writing Board
26 March 2016

There is a great deal of concern about the quality of student academic writing at the secondary level, but those who seek to assess it usually think in terms of large numbers and quick scoring. A few years ago, a vice-president of The College Board was happy to announce that they could assess 16,000 essays in 20 seconds, and it seems likely that ACT depends on software and fast computers as well, in its academic writing assessments. A local print shop had this sign: “Good, Fast, Cheap…choose two.” The College Board chose fast and cheap.
In 1998, I started the National Writing Board [tcr.org] with the idea of a more craft-like service for the assessment of student academic writing. We have now provided 4-5 page reports on hundreds of history research papers written by high school students from 31 states and Belgium, Canada, China, Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.
We typically spend about three hours on each paper, with two Readers for each, but one Reader recently spent more than three hours on one recent 12,000-word paper from Asia. The Readers have the title of the paper and the length in words, but they know nothing else about the students, except that they are in high school. This helps to eliminate any bias which might come from knowing more about the authors. We chose good over fast and cheap…
In addition to advice about improvements to student organization and writing, our Readers often provide observations on the content of their papers, for example: “…Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army was stationed in Manchuria near the town of Pingfan. It was placed under the command of then Major—later Lt. General—Ishii Shiro, and consisted of some 3,000 soldiers, scientists and Japanese Red Cross nurses. Ishii was a surgeon, and held a degree from Kyoto University. His installation was both huge and most secret, and its stockpiles of biological weapons were such that they could have killed every person on the planet.  Doing research on procedures for Bacteriological Warfare, Ishii’s staff carried out ghastly medical experiments on Allied POWs. Prisoners were purposely infected with anthrax, plague and cholera. They were subjected to experiments with salmonella, tetanus, botulism, gas gangrene, smallpox, tick encephalitis and tuberculosis. Some of the victims—Americans, Australians, and British POWs and prisoners from the Soviet Union, Korea and China—were also surgically examined without benefit of anesthesia. Other prisoners were burned, electrocuted and subjected to pressure chamber experiments “that popped eyes out of their heads.”  Some had their blood drained, and replaced with that of a horse. Women prisoners were purposely infected with syphilis, impregnated, and their live fetuses removed for dissection. Many prisoners were exposed to X-Rays until they perished. Some were frozen, and then immersed into hot water, and immediately subjected to the amputation of limbs. Some scholars, and a number of Japanese veterans, suggest some 12,000 people were killed in these experiments. Under the auspices of Unit 731, plague-carrying fleas were dropped on cities in northern China. Dysentery, cholera and typhoid cultures were dropped into local Chinese water supplies as early as 1942…”
Jonathan Reider, for many years Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Stanford, has written that: “The National Writing Board provides a unique independent assessment of serious student research papers, and submits three-page reports to colleges at the request of the author. Thirty-nine highly selective colleges, both research universities and liberal arts colleges, have stated their willingness to accept these evaluations. This is an excellent tool for colleges to add to their array of evaluative techniques. While some colleges ask for a graded paper of the student’s work, few have the time or the expertise to evaluate these systematically as part of an application for admission. It is more efficient if these can be evaluated by an independent and reliable source.”
Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions at Harvard, has written that: “Since 1998, when it started, we have been supporters of your National Writing Board, which is still unique in supplying independent assessments of the research papers of secondary students. The NWB reports also provide a useful addition to the college application materials of high school students who are seeking admission to selective colleges.”
We are able to do this level of assessment because we have more time than teachers, and because we don’t believe mass computer-scoring of writing does any good for students. A few years ago, I spent some time with high school teachers in Collier County, Florida. They read some of our student work and we talked about the value of term papers and assessment. On the last day I discovered that all the teachers but one had six classes of thirty students each (180), and the one had seven classes of thirty students (210). It was quite clear that their students would not be asked to do 12,000-word papers, or even the 7,400-word papers which are now the average for those published in The Concord Review.
Student academic expository writing is important, both in itself, and in the extensive study and reading necessary to do it well, but if we keep thinking in terms of the mass-assessment of huge numbers of short samples of formulaic (software-readable) student writing, we will be doing nothing to help improve writing. Such an approach constrains and trivializes student work, and fails to introduce students (and their teachers) to the necessary effort for nonfiction term papers students should be learning to make as they prepare for further education and for their careers.
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