Chad Barnett, 20 July 1998

Background:  Evaluating Critical and Analytical Thinking Skills across the Curriculum at Linsly

During the spring of 1998, the Headmaster at Linsly (a college prepatory school) asked me to investigate curriculum designs that promote high scores on the PSTA, SAT and other standardized assessment tests,  improve students' qualifications for National Merit status, and result in successful college placement rates.  Based on our discussion,  I framed three questions:

  1. Do Linsly students have a proficient command of language?
  2. Does our curriculum prepare students for analytical and critical  thinking questions?
  3. Can Linsly students write well?
Interestingly enough, the final question is perhaps the most  important for three reasons. First, since writing is a visual reflection of a student's thought process, the most effective way to promote analytical  and critical thinking is by considering more carefully the methods we use to  assign, instruct, and evaluate student composition and rhetoric. Second, because student writing samples have a more prominent role in the college admissions  process, especially at smaller, more selective schools, an emphasis on writing  across Linsly's curriculum would prepare student discourse to meet the  expectations of the academy. And finally, because of the new configuration of  the PSAT, the percentage of National Merit Finalists that we have each year will  depend greatly on our students' ability to write well.

Thus, with the understanding that college placement, national  merit status, and critical thinking skills all are contingent upon how well our  students write, I engaged a process that would explain how we might adjust the  curriculum at Linsly in a way that encourages student writing,  meets the  expectations of the academy, and prepares students for the kind of critical  thinking abilities demanded by colleges and universities.

Literally thousands of articles describe writing assessment strategies. From psychoanalytic evaluation, to self-evaluation, to peer  evaluation, to tape-recorded evaluation, the methods available to teachers are  limited only by the imagination. With this in mind, I limited my research to  assessment, evaluation, and grading strategies that have been described in  academic journals or books during the last two to three years. Although my annotatation note whether or not I think particular strategies will work at Linsly,  my hope is that the  bibliography can also be used as a general reference for those who are dissatisfied with the  method they are currently using and would like to find literature on something  more current.

Annotated Bibliography

Adkinson, Stephen, and Stephen Tchudi. "Grading on Merit and Achievement: Where Quality Meets Quantity." Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Ed. Stephen Tchudi. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 192-208.

Adkinson and Tchudi have found that a carefully constructed list of tasks eliminates the need for vague, context-based terms such as structure, voice, clarity, and specificity (196) and, consequently, students are able to spend more time working on tasks before them rather than 'figuring the teacher out'(196). They lend credibility to their achievement grading system by acknowledging that "there are elements of subjectivity in our criteria," but that "the critical point is that we have shifted grading away from the sliding scales (from F to A) and that we describe criteria in terms of completion of the job rather than abstract rhetorical traits"(200).

While I can't see a complete conversion to achievement grading at Linsly or in my classroom, I can see the value in it. Specifically, I intend to use achievement grading for somewhere around 30% of the student's final grade. Clearly, by shifting the tedium of daily journal responses to an achievement grading system, the responsibility for personal success will lie in the hands of the students.

Anderson, Rebecca S., and Bruce W. Speck. "Suggestions for Responding to the Dilemma of Grading Students' Writing." English Journal January 1997: 21-27.
Through this article, Anderson and Speck attempt to explain the dilemma faced by teachers who evaluate writing, and to encourage teachers across the curriculum to "find creative ways to meet the challenge of promoting growth in the face of grading requirements"(27). Anderson and Speck suggest that writing teachers discuss the grading dilemma with one another, and use "grading techniques" that will help students learn (23). This article provided several examples of evaluation techniques that manage to be both counterproductive to the best interests of the student and demeaning to the teacher. Certainly, minimalist grading, as Anderson and Speck describe it, is the least effective grading strategy mentioned. Neither Anderson nor Speck endorsed this strategy which necessitates that the teacher use a check mark, an exclamation point, and the word NO to help students become better writers (24). To be men and women of letters, but be able to use no characters other than those three seems more like some form of cruel punishment than a grading strategy. Cassette grading offers only slightly more value, but still places too many burdens on students who most likely don't know they've made mistakes to begin with (24). Faced with similar problems, collaborative grading calls upon a self-evaluation model that becomes problematic when students are frustrated because they don't realize or understand the mistakes they are making. Yet, the independent-evaluator form of collaborative grading does offer some potential as it takes into consideration the teacher as coach vs. teacher as evaluator dualism presented by Peter Elbow in his article, "Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process." Finally, the explanation of portfolio grading offered the only useful advice on alternative grading techniques. Through an analysis of the portfolio, teachers can observe and determine "the development and growth of the writer's ability"(25). Furthermore, Anderson supports her endorsement of the portfolio technique through her reference to Brady and Thaiss' s "What Student Portfolios are Teaching Us"(25). She quotes from that source, "Students have more authority, as well as more responsibility, for judging when their work is ready for evaluation"(25). Here, students are accountable for their own growth and development, but not their own evaluation. Clearly, much of this article demonstrates the type of fad grading that could impair the development of potentially sound academic writers. Yet, Linsly's curriculum would benefit from a more concentrated effort to make portfolio assessment a part of classrooms in all disciplines.
Bloom, Lynn Z. "Why I (Used to) Hate to Give Grades." College Composition and Communication 48 (1997): 360-371. Greenberg, Karen L. "Grading, Evaluating, Assessing: Power and Politics in College Composition." Rev. of Alternatives to Grading Student Writing by Stephen Tchudi, ed. Situating Portfolios: Four Perspectives by Kathleen Blake Yancey and Irwin Weiser, eds. and Assessment of Writing: Politics, Policies, Practices by Edward M. White, William D. Lutz, and Sandra Kamusikiri, eds. College Composition and Communication 49 (1998): 275-284. Guthrow, Mary B. "Writing at Reading: How a Junior Year in England Changes Student Writers." Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Ed. Stephen Tchudi. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 122-135. Holaday, Lynn. "Writing Students Need Coaches, Not Judges." Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Ed. Stephen Tchudi. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 35-45.
Lynn Holaday presents an emotionally charged argument that discredits and vilifies the practice of grading, especially in the context of writing evaluation. She asserts that the primary obstacles hindering student writing are traumatic writing experiences and negative attitudes, each of which is misery caused by grading. Thus, in her thesis, Holaday explains that, "I see changing them as the only really effective means of improving my students' writing, and I see my most effective tool as minimizing judgement, otherwise known as grading"(35). Unlike many other anti-grade ideologists who ignore the opposition, Holaday strives to refute every counter-claim that could be made. But, unfortunately, she is incredibly loose with logic, and the result is rhetoric that is long on emotion and Romantic optimism, but short on real world application. Her conviction that ranking students through SAT's, GRE's, LSAT's, and other national standards tests is more reliable than grades and class rank is not only naíve, it is dangerous. Anyone who has spent even a minimal amount of time researching the SAT realizes its multiple shortcomings, and that in the end it measures little more than how well the student can take the SAT. Holaday's belief that a "grade may be influenced or contaminated by everything from flattery to a teacher's personal preferences, to a desire to warn, to a fear of causing psychological harm," is no different than evaluation, reward, and promotion systems that exist throughout American society. Why should teachers nurture students in a non-evaluative, no-risk, everyone-is-exactly-the-same environment only to release them to the lions? Holaday's approach seems to have the potential to cause much more harm than giving grades does. Furthermore, the dualism that she creates between coaches and judges is preposterous. I have been an athlete all of my life, and I coach three seasons of athletics at Linsly. To suggest that "Coaches are on your side; judges are not. Coaches are friendly; judges are aloof. Coaches want you to do well; judges don't care"(41), is to completely ignore reality. Certainly coaches, and teachers who assign grades, are on the student's side, can be friendly, and want the individual to succeed, but they also judge. In fact, a coach's decision of who plays the bulk of the minutes during a game is often a more biting judgement than giving a low grade because it is completely visible. In any event, Holaday's explanation moved me closer to realizing that for the purposes of the highly competitive environment that Linsly promotes, I must discover alternative systems of grading. Ironically enough, however, after all of the spin and rhetoric, Holaday's alternative offers little more than a new way to label an 'A.'
Huot, Brian. "Toward a New Theory of Writing Assessment." College Composition and Communication 47 (1996): 549-565.
Although this article is directed primarily toward people who use and design placement tests that measure a wide field of students, (specifically for the purposes of college scheduling, or broader national writing assessment tests) the argument that Huot presents is valuable in the context of my research for two reasons: (1) it asserts that "at present, assessment procedures which attempt to fix objectively a student's ability to write are based upon an outdated theory supported by an irrelevant epistemology"(551-552); and (2) that any truly reliable or valid assessment of writing must "recognize the importance of context, rhetoric, and other characteristics integral to a specific purpose and institution"(552). These observations indicate that writing teachers across the curriculum must focus writing assessment on "a writer's ability to communicate within a particular context and to a specific audience who needs to read this writing as part of a clearly defined communicative event"(559). Huot reiterates the central premise of his argument by explaining that, "Instead of generalizability, technical rigor, and large scale measures that minimize context and aim for a standardization of writing quality, these new products emphasize the context of the texts being read, the position of the readers, and the local, practical standards teachers and other stakeholders establish for written communication"(561). Indeed, as we redefine the manner in which we will respond to student writing across the curriculum at Linsly, we must focus less on an attempt to judge objectively a particular writer, and instead be able to "describe the promise and limitations of a writer working within a particular rhetorical and linguistic context"(564). More importantly immediately, however, is that while Huot has denounced ETS and other national testing companies throughout his article, we must remember that those testing companies maintain the integrity and validity of their writing assessment methods. As long as the holistic assessment strategy is used by ETS, Linsly teachers must continue to prepare students to produce the clearly organized, fact driven, thesis based essays that are required for that communicative event, superficial though it is. Of course, this is not to suggest that the style of writing praised by ETS readers is the only style we will teach. Rather, it is a mode of discourse that we must prepare our students to practice.
Jones, Kathleen. "Portfolio Assessment as an Alternative to Grading Student Writing." Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Ed. Stephen Tchudi. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 255-263.
Kathleen Jones asserts that "the writing portfolio is a structure that will help simplify assessment and grading and at the same time help make learning meaningful in our classrooms"(255). Jones' description of the portfolio is appealing because of the potential it has to allow teachers to track all phases of the students' writing process, "I want students to follow through on any writing they undertake, so every piece of writing, including the various drafts, self-assessments, peer responses, and teacher response is included in the portfolio. Revisions, rewrites, and false starts are also evident. This collection becomes a living, almost breathing, record of a student's thinking as well as his or her growth, through self-assessment, as a writer and learner"(255). While I agree with many of Jones's points regarding the subtleties of portfolio assessment, I do take exception to her idea that portfolio writing should not be assessed in any way until the final conference. While refraining from comment is noble in theory, it is far too often misinterpreted as teacher apathy. A student commented recently that one of my colleagues was lazy because "he doesn't even look at our stuff--it doesn't even seem like he cares what we write or if we get any better." I believe that summative grades can wait, but I think that students, especially high school students, require feedback to keep them motivated. Finally, Jones' s emphasis on the portfolio conference as a way to shift "the evaluation and assigning of grades from something done by the teacher to the student to the perspective of a shared responsibility in assessing what has been accomplished"(262) will certainly have a positive effect when applied to writing instruction at Linsly.
Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric For Writing Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Originally published in 1982, Lindemann's text is now in its third edition. Its staying power can be attributed to the pragmatic approach that it uses as it introduces new teachers to all aspects of composition/rhetoric instruction. Lindemann describes several methodologies for evaluating writing in the same chapter that she describes methodologies for creating writing assignments (chapter 13, pages 191-223). Her decision to combine these separate components of writing instruction stems from her belief that "problems in many papers may be the fault, not of the writer, but of the assignment"(191). Lindemann explains further that, "Effective writing assignments encourage students to define progressively more complex rhetorical problems. Since students learn to write by writing, our responsibility is to control and vary the rhetorical demands of writing tasks to give students practice in adjusting relationships among writer, reader, and subject, manipulating more and more complex variables"(193). She finalizes her explanation of effective writing assignments by suggesting that all assignments must account for: "(1) The students' interest in and understanding of the subject; (2) The purpose or aim of the composition; (3) The audience (which needn't always be the teacher); (4) A role for the student to take with respect to the subject and audience: (5) The form of discourse (which needn't always be an essay)"(194). Lindemann also recommends that teachers should consider this heuristic for designing writing assignments, "(1) What do I want the students to do? (2) How do I want them to do the assignment? (3) For whom are the students writing? (4) When will students do the assignment? (5) What will I do with the assignment?"(196). After establishing the components of a satisfactory writing assignment, Lindemann explains the merit of both atomistic and holistic evaluation. She then describes a detailed, eleven-step approach to "Teaching Through Comments on Student Papers"(216-219). Writing teachers at Linsly can learn, or be reminded of, two very important techniques described by Lindemann. First, writing assignments must be carefully crafted and articulated to ensure student understanding. And second, we must respond to papers in a way that enhances learning. Specifically, in our comments to students we must use leading questions to help them solve problems, provide solutions for labeled problems, praise all positive aspects of the writing, avoid rewriting the paper for them, and we must create a careful endnote to summarize our comments and to establish a goal for the next draft of the paper.
Massa, Janis. "Alternative Assessment of Second-Language Writing: A Developmental Model." Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Ed. Stephen Tchudi. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 77-89. McGann, Patrick. "'Well, Think Again!': Remarking On Grading, Subject Positions, And Writing Pedagogy."Composition Studies 25.2 (1997): 19-30. O'Hagan, Liesel K. "It's Broken, Fix It!" Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Ed. Stephen Tchudi. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 3-13.
O'Hagan indicates that "studies as early as 1912 questioned the validity of grading, suggesting that in writing instruction, in particular, grades were far too subjective"(4). She bases her study on the thesis that, "despite extensive research, educators are no more successful at grading in the current system of education than they were a century and a half ago"(5). Most distressing, perhaps, is her assertion that grades do little more than teach failure (5). She insists that by giving grades teachers are labeling students at varying degrees of inadequacy. O'Hagan supports her thesis by using current research to indicate six reasons why grading is problematic: (1) Scientific Invalidity; (2) False Motivation; (3) False Indicators of Worth; (4) Superficial Learning; (5) Student/Teacher Barriers; and (6) Limits on Teaching and Teachers (6-12). While this essay serves as a fine introduction to a larger group of essays that promote alternative means of writing assessment, it is problematic in its own assertion. O'Hagan does nothing to answer her critics who believe that there is value in assigning grades; a significant problem considering that Linsly derives a great deal of satisfaction from the fact that its teachers, in all subjects, give accurate grades that have not suffered from inflation. She does not acknowledge the fact that most of the working men and women in American society are given various levels of compensation for the work that they do, and that while such circumstances may lead to false motivation and barriers, it is the way capitalist economies work. Again, whether we like grades in theory or not, educators must have a clear objective, and part of that objective (at least at American college preparatory schools) must be to prepare students for the rigors of higher education and life in American society. To this end, grades are meaningful.
Pribyl, Rick. "Unlocking Outcome Based Education through the Writing Process." Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Ed. Stephen Tchudi. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 244-253. Reising, Bob. "The Formative Assessment of Writing." The Clearing House 71.2 (1997): 71-72. Young, Gail M. "Using a Multidimensional Scoring Guide: A Win-Win Situation." Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Ed. Stephen Tchudi. Urbana: NCTE, 1997. 225-231.
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