Dabbling in Standards-Based Writing Assessment

Teaching writing is not for the faint-hearted.  Assessing writing is even less so.

For years, I have struggled in vain to find the perfect system — “objective” one-size-fits-all trait-based rubrics, rubrics I have created, rubrics my students have created. None ever seems to accurately measure what I see in a student’s writing. And while I have always offered my students the opportunity to revise for a brand new grade, very few do it. While I offer copious feedback, the number on the rubric is still the bottom-line for most of my kids.

It doesn’t work.

I want assessment to be one more step in moving writers forward in their craft.

After being inspired by many in my Twitter feed, I decided to try a kind of standards-based grading of writing for the last three workshops of the year. In thinking it through, I have realized that what I really want is to feel assured that my students have mastered — not just dabbled in or been introduced to — certain skills before they move to the next grade. I would like to be able to provide that information to their new teacher.

So, this is the new grading policy I developed (and sent home to parents):

  • We will continue our regular writing workshop routines and practices — mini-lessons, conferring, sharing in writing groups.
  • Final drafts of papers will still be due on a given due date.
  • I will assess each paper, providing copious feedback, and a chart, in which I deem each skill as mastered, approaching, developing, or not present.
  • If a student has mastered all of the skills, he/she will receive a 100 in the gradebook.
  • If a student has yet to master a skill or skills, he/she will have three weeks to revise that paper as many times as he/she desires in the pursuit of mastering all skills. These students can make appointments with me for additional conferring.
  • Each time a student submits a revision, I will look at it anew, provide feedback, and assess the skills on the student’s chart.
  • At the end of the three weeks, if all skills have not been mastered, students will receive a score based on the number of skills mastered.

Here is what the skills chart for our theme analysis unit looks like. These skills are the same mini-lessons that I taught in this unit:

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 1.39.37 PM

I copied this chart into each student’s Google folder, and highlighted the appropriate boxes.

I also kept track of charts for whole classes so that I could see which skills were being mastered and being neglected across the board when students submitted work. Here is the chart for one of my classes during our editorial unit. A blue line indicates that the student mastered every skill. An “X” signifies that the individual skill wasn’t mastered:


Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 1.42.45 PM

Through my little experiment, I’ve identified some pros and cons to this approach:

Pro Con
  • More students — though still not all — are spending time revising.
  • Many students are revising a “finished” paper more than once.
  • Skills are being mastered.
  • I now have real documentation of what students have mastered — I can share that with them and their parents, and I can share that with other teachers.
  • Students have a better sense of where their writing stands, and they are now receiving multiple forms of feedback on each piece. And they report that they love the visual of the skills chart.
  • Looking at the skills by whole classes helped me reflect on mini-lessons and plan future instruction.
  • Less importance is being placed on turn-in day. I get the feeling that a group of students says to themselves, “Eh, whatever, I can revise it anyway.”  To that end, I feel like I’m not really assessing “finished” pieces for some of my students.
  • This system is most effectively used by my top-performing students, whose writing was stronger in the first place.
  • I cannot tell that this has made any difference whatsoever with my lowest writers.
  • Students are now juggling multiple pieces of writing at once — crafting the next writing workshop while revising the previous one. This is fine for some students but overwhelming for others.


My one-woman jury is still out. While I certainly think this is more effective than my old rubric-based grades, I am still struggling to find ways to engage every student.

Where do you stand? What are your golden tips for assessing student writing — strategies that actually move students writing forward? How have you approached standards-based assessment in your classroom? Connect with us in the comments or on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.



  1. Ah, you know that I will be looking for some advice. Already thinking about to look at this through the history teacher lens.

  2. Great post! I am making the same transition in my 8th grade ELA class. I also started by adjusting my rubrics like you did, and now I am starting to think about if I could reorganize my whole grading system to SBL within the parameters of a public middle school online grade book. There are so many sources to explain why to SBG, but few to explain how! Can’t wait to hear more about how it’s working in your classroom.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your comment! You are SO write — lots of theory in this department and less rubber-on-the-road. I think this presents particular challenges to teachers like you and me who have public grade books into which we have to post grades. Are there teachers out there who really DON’T have to “grade” student work?

      I think my next steps for the next school year are to move to a portfolio-based assessment of writing — maybe assessing the portfolio by quarter. That way, students have multiple papers and multiple months (in some cases, all year!) to be able to show me that they have mastered a particular skill. My next step for right now is to figure out what those skills are!

      Thank you for reading & please let me know how it’s going in your classroom! I am anxious to hear!

  3. I’m so glad you posted this as I literally have no idea! This is my second year teaching and my first utilizing a writer’s workshop model. I’ve still yet to find a method that really works for me in any arena of writing instruction be it the instruction of skills, feedback, or assessment. I absolutely hate assessing writing because I know the final grade is most meaningful for students but I obsess over how I can give them the feedback to help them earn the grade they want and be objective will assessing writing.

    While I don’t have any magic formula for you, I wanted you to know I appreciate knowing there are teachers with many more years of experience than myself who are finding themselves in the same situation!

    1. Cassie, thank you so much for your feedback and your encouragement! In part, I think these struggles are exactly why so many teachers simply assign writing rather than teaching it! It’s amazing that you’re already writing workshop in your second year; I didn’t get there until my sixth! 🙂 Thank you for reading!

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