Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Criteria, Standards and Intuitions in the Imprecise Work of Assessing Writing

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Criteria, Standards and Intuitions in the Imprecise Work of Assessing Writing

Article excerpt


Standards-based assessment using explicitly stated criteria for both school-based and centrally organised common assessment is prescribed in current state and national programs that emphasise the need for comparability, consistency and accountability in curriculum at all levels of schooling. The application of generally applicable, pre-specified criteria and performance standards has been recommended as a procedure whereby the subjectivity of assessors' qualitative judgements can be minimised and comparability achieved. It has been characterised as a value-neutral and efficient assessment technology.

An important part of the rhetoric of school-based, criteria- and standards-referenced assessment--apart from its reputation for certainty, objectivity and fairness--is its student-centredness. For both formative and summative assessment purposes, teacher-designed tasks and the pre-specification of criteria and standards are believed to eliminate the ill effects of other 'subjective' methodologies, because assessors' judgements are based solely on comparisons between individuals' performances and the explicitly stated performance criteria and standards. The assessment technology and procedures are given as insurance that assessment is objective, reliable, and therefore equitable, and that it will produce reliable assessments of levels of achievement.

Although criteria- and standards-based assessment has been widely used to assess written texts in senior secondary schools for twenty years, it is now to be routinely used throughout the early and middle years as well. It is timely, therefore, to revisit a review of research that has examined the ways that criteria and standards are applied during the assessment of students' writing.

Writing and assessment

The production of written texts--either on paper or electronic media--is one of the most common tasks required of students for the assessment of literacy skills and procedures, and knowledge and understanding of language and textual resources. Writing is also the mode whereby knowledge and understanding and other assessable elements are presented for display in most curriculum areas. In this case, written texts are the carriers of displays of required learning and achievement. Students are required to compose posters, advertisements, PowerPoint presentations, newspaper articles, menus, health plans, design briefs, and many types of reports, recounts and other types of texts to display knowledge and understanding of facts, concepts, procedures and skills in investigation, reflection, analysis and synthesis of information and ideas. For the teacher, therefore, the crucial skill for assessing authentic achievement is the ability to differentiate between the carrier and the content, the medium and the message (McLuhan, 1964).

This paper focuses on this problem and reviews research on the criteria-based assessment of students' written texts that, in accord with McLuhan (1964), demonstrates that the separation of form and content is impossible, even for skilled and experienced teachers. It is argued that, even when criteria and standards are explicitly specified, content knowledge and even literacy skills are so deeply embedded in the medium that the qualities of the medium influence not only their visibility to the assessor but also how they are perceived. The stated criteria for assessment become too difficult to apply directly; they must be reinterpreted and re-inflected by the assessor. As a result, it is the medium that is intuitively assessed, rather than the quality of its discrete features or the information it carries. Even the use of a supposedly objective assessment technology, such as standards-based assessment, simply disguises rather than eliminates this problem (Broadfoot, 1981).

The work of assessing

The role of the assessor of writing is much more than that of a 'neutral technician' making judgements that require a simple comparison between culture-neutral, 'fixed' standards and the assessable knowledge, skills and processes visible in the student text. …

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