Are writing skills being left behind during the pandemic?

Writing assessment has come a long way, and students need timely and insightful feedback to hone the communication skills that will carry them through college and career

According to the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP), two-thirds of K-12 students are not writing at levels expected for their grade level. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, writing had not received the same attention as math or reading.

Now, as teachers struggle to manage a combination of remote and face-to-face instruction, it is difficult to imagine how students are being encouraged to write regularly. These unique times call for new approaches to writing instruction and assessment.

Why is writing so important?

Writing is a complex cognitive ability that is foundational to the development of communication and thinking skills. Writing instruction helps students learn to write for different audiences and purposes, including writing to persuade, writing to explain, and writing to convey real or imagined experiences.

The ability to write well matters because poor writing often indicates unclear thinking. Students need to be able to communicate their ideas clearly in order to take charge of their own learning and prepare for college, as well as their future careers. Employers routinely report that they desire stronger written communication skills in their employees.

There are three key tactics educators can use to help students achieve higher levels of competence in written expression.

First: Students need individualized feedback for writing assessment to be meaningful. This personalized feedback can be used to help students identify their strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to truly target areas where they need more practice.

Second: Currently, the lack of consistency in writing assessment and the lack of norms makes it difficult to give students the specific feedback they need. Just as in math and reading, providing students with metrics against established norms would allow teachers to target skill development for writing maturity.

Third: Most middle and high school teachers have student loads of 90-150 students per day, which makes it incredibly hard to find time for frequent graded writing assignments. Manual grading of writing assessments is labor-intensive, making frequency difficult. Current methods of assessment are also so subjective that it is difficult to know if students are making progress.

Technology is fueling the standardization of writing assessment

With no benchmark or objective standards in place for writing (unlike reading), it’s extremely difficult to remove subjectivity and ensure that each student’s work is assessed fairly, consistently, and in a timely manner.

Even highly-predictive standard writing metrics, such as Words Correct Per Minute, which assesses students’ writing fluency, are too tedious for teachers to implement. They also do not reflect the time students have devoted to writing or the complexity of the text they are creating.

Research has demonstrated that frequent writing and assessment is the best way to help students learn to write well. However, in order to accomplish this, we should consider employing technology such as automation or artificial intelligence to assist.

Automation can remove some of the drudgery for teachers when it comes to writing assessment. It allows for simpler, more frequent assessments that don’t take up teacher planning time or time in the classroom. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence and machine learning are facilitating the move toward automated essay grading using benchmarks and rubrics that not only help with current assessments, but can monitor student progress over time.

I’ve seen this first hand, over the past three years as I’ve been researching how to improve student writing performance, how to establish a new generation of writing assessment tools, and helping develop writing assessment rubrics.

Having this kind of frequent assessment in place, enabled by technology, allows educators to recognize where students may be struggling to provide relevant feedback and address challenges immediately. Ultimately, this can help teachers improve overall student writing performance, and better prepare them for the level of writing skill expected in college and beyond.

By Dave Edyburn, PhD, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, first published at April 2, 2021