Falling in Love with Assessment in Vegas: NWP/NCTE 2012

Vegas wedding chapelThis year’s NWP & NCTE Annual meetings took us to Las Vegas, NV. Amid the nonstop lights, music, and second-hand smoke of the Vegas casinos, I fell in love.  I have a colleague who talks fondly of her elopement in Las Vegas.  My rendezvous, while less romantic, was filled with much wooing on the part of various rubrics, checklists and frameworks for assessing writing. I have always been a fan of words, but the more I explore the words and phrases we use to describe what students are doing when writing, the more  excited I become to use that language to help them grow as writers.

My courtship with assessment did not begin in Las Vegas.  Over the past few years I have been growing more and more interested in the language we use to describe writing, especially as “writing” becomes increasingly complex through integration of digital technologies and social media. My dissertation research on school-based documentary production continues to challenge my understandings of writing and how to “teach” it.

Further fueling my interests have been recent mumblings in our state to remove the burden of high-stakes testing, a campaign issue Governor Mark Dayton voiced and continues to pursue. Would elimination of state-based testing lend itself to incorporating national assessments? With the Common Core initiative many states are considering comprehensive assessments such as PARCC and Smarter Balanced.  Would such moves help us to better understand writing or learning in general?

With these questions in mind, I traveled from assessment session to assessment session, which often took me from one hotel ballroom to another in search of the marriage between writing and assessment. Coincidentally, but not surprisingly, all of the NCTE sessions I attended on assessment presented frameworks that were started in some way through teachers of the National Writing Project.

The first session I attended was on 6 +1 Traits of writing.  This is not a new framewoTraitsrk for assessing writing, but has proven to have staying power with its presentation of 6 + 1 (7 for the non math majors in the group) traits or qualities for assessing and teaching writing: Ideas, Organization, Voice, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, Conventions, and Presentation. I was impressed to see that some teachers are adapting the 6 Traits framework to digital writing through use of the Presentation trait, including within Presentation an attention to audience and purpose.  Most teachers I have talke with find the Traits to be helpful especially in providing a common terminology to discuss writing. Yet, some educators have complained that it has too heavy a focus on the final product and that it is less flexible with nonfiction texts, especially when discussing the concept of voice.   To learn more about the Traits visit a helpful 6 + 1 Traits resource site.

Another assessment session I attended described the Analytical Writing Continuum (AWC).  This framework, built on the foundation of 6 Traits, also offers a wonderful vocabulary and superb framework or continuum for informing instruction, professional development, and research on the teaching of writing.  It differs mostly from 6+1 Traits in its reconceptualization of the Voice trait as Stance, which allows more for the perspective taking that is necessary when writing and reading nonfiction and informational texts.  What I’m especially drawn to with

My NWP Conference Buddies

My NWP Conference Buddies

this framework is its emphasis on teachers as the central players in assessment.  Implemented ideally, this framework designs assessment as collaborative learning experiences for professionals. The hope with AWC is that teachers who use the framework will not only have a better understanding of what their students can do with writing, but will also feel better prepared to teach and talk about writing with their students.  To find out more about AWC check out these links: What is the Analytical Writing Continuum? and AWC Assessment as a from of teacher inquiry.

The final assessment session I attended was on a newer, and less well-known framework, the Multimodal Assessment

Project or MAP.  This framework seeks to encompass non-print texts as well as traditional texts such as the academic essay.  In doing so, it attempts to deemphasize the final product or artifact of writing in order to consider the entire process of writing into the assessment.  To get started, this framework used well-known rubrics such as the 6+1 Framework, The Washington State Content/Organization/Ideas and Conventions Rubrics (HsCoSSS), the above-mentioned AWC, as well as common film rubrics and applied these to a variety of digital texts such as VoiceThread compositions, digital stories and other media texts.  Through this convergence of assessment rubrics, the team identified elements that were missing and devised instead the following criteria: Context, Artifact, Process Management, Substance/Content, and Habits of Mind.  These five criteria or “domains,” isolate the focus on product and thus limit it, while also heightening focus on Context and Process, and thought processes (Habits of Mind). While I am excited about this new framework, I fear that it may be too ambitious in a time of high- stakes assessment, which assumes all learning can be compressed into some final, tangible product.  That said, I find it paramount to keep my eye on this framework, especially as our definitions of writing expand and become increasingly unstuck in time and space. The following link provides much explanation of this new framework: http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/2118

BumbysWhat was perhaps most revealing about my explorations in assessment was an event that my colleagues and I experienced on our last night in Las Vegas.  After dining on charred octopus, we strolled through the market place of the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino and stumbled upon an art installation that invited passersby to partake in a “Fair & Honest Appraisal of Your Appearance” by Mr. and Ms. Bumpy.  (Visit here to find out more about the Bumbys and to take a peek at our fast-fingered assessors.

Interested in how these appraisers might assess our appearances, all four of us stepped in line.  We stood alert as cloaked appraisers looked us up and down and typed appraisals of our outward appearance and demeanor in the form of short stories.  As crazy as this may seem, we were not the only ones to so willingly offer ourselves to be judged by strangers;, groups of other tourists and people stood in line, waiting for their turns to be evaluated.

After being appraised I realized that I “have a youthful Meg Ryan quality.”  What does that mean? Is that good or bad? Assuming that this must – be only a Vegas thing, we asked one of the producers about the event.  He said that the installation has experienced much success across the country.  He went on to say that the experience taps into human nature, that we all secretly desire to know how others view us.  Furthermore he explained that the cards or print appraisals produced using old fashioned typewriters serve as ice breakers in a culture that while hyper-connected electronically lacks the social ease to interact in face-to-face settings.

This experience revealed to me that we all harbor a secret love for assessment. We want to know if what we are doing has value to someone other than ourselves. In many ways that is what all forms of assessment or evaluation do. They provide us with coordinates for where we stand.  In terms of formative assessment, they provide us with the “ice-breaker” needed to enter the text, the space to discuss what is working and what is not. Most importantly, the assessment provides us a threshold from which to begin conversations about how to proceed with our writing, our teaching, our lives.  I hope that my many rendezvous with assessment prove fruitful in my own teaching.


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