Using Writing as a Means of Mastery Assessment

When was the last time you took a multiple-choice test? 

For me, the last time I took a multiple choice test to demonstrate mastery was during our beginning of the year compliance training courses (you know, those courses we have to take every year). Here is the real question though: Did it show my mastery of the concepts presented? I can confidently say no even though I made a 100. If you asked me questions from some of the information presented in those modules, most likely the same mastery questions, I wouldn’t be able to answer correctly. 

This leads me to my next question: Even though students make high grades on multiple choice tests, does that mean they’ve mastered the material? 

In the age of No Child Left Behind, it is difficult to not give multiple choice tests as this is probably the easiest way to collect data. (I feel like this is especially true when teaching in an Economically Disadvantaged school as it is even more test-prep driven.) This is true; I can’t argue that, but there has to be another way to demonstrate mastery that really enables students to show their knowledge on a given skill or topic. I believe writing can be another way for students to show how much they know, and it can be a more engaging and creative way to assess their learning. 

The Problem with Multiple-Choice Tests

An article published by the Washington Post states, “While it has been derided by educators for decades as incapable of truly measuring understanding, and while performance on such exams can be noticeably improved simply by learning a few tricks, the multiple choice question may have a larger, less obvious flaw that disrupts the tone of learning itself.” 

The author, Terry Heick, goes on to say, “More than anything else, when a multiple-choice question is given to a student in hopes of measuring how well he or she understands something, it manufactures the illusion of right and wrong, a binary condition that ignores the endlessly fluid nature of information.”

I really think this sums up my point: multiple-choice tests, as a means of mastery assessment in the ELAR classroom, shows students that there is one correct answer. As ELAR teachers, we know there can be many correct answers to one question because there is an art to what we teach. The way an author’s writing speaks to each individual reader and the way that reader interprets an author’s words is something that can’t be reviewed through a multiple choice test. 

One of the best parts of our class is that students are able to read a text, analyze and internalize it, create an opinion about it, and share that opinion through discussion or writing. As long as students can support their answer, who is to say they are completely wrong or off-base?  

Image via WeAreTeachers

How Writing Can Help Solve the Problem 

In her article published on the ASCD website, Catlin Tucker argues there are some essential “musts” for mastery and here is how writing can easily be integrated into her suggestions. 

  1. Creativity and Play – Tucker argues that students need to see learning and work as “play” (due to the negative connotation the word “work” has) and she encourages teachers to reframe their classroom as a place where students play as they learn. The great thing about this is students can play through their writing! We have students read and analyze texts and then emulate the author’s craft in their own writing. 
    • How You Can Use This in the Classroom – We can use low-stakes writing (free writing, brainstorms, drafts) and encourage students to “play” around with their writing. Low-stakes writing isn’t graded necessarily but can be reviewed for assessment and mastery. When students are able to “play” in their writing (low-stakes writing), we are able to see what they need from us: interventions, extensions, etc. We also open the door for students to interpret the text and show us their interpretation of it. 
  2. Student-Centered – This is exactly what it sounds like: students are at the center of their learning; they are doing the heavy lifting; they are active in the learning process. Students taking their knowledge and constructing a piece of writing is the ultimate student-centered application of their learning. It also allows all of the students in the classroom to have a voice and the ability to share their voice on a variety of topics. Just like us, students want their voice to be heard; they want to share their opinions and stories, and one of the best ways to do this is through writing. 
  3. Choice – Students want a voice in their learning; there is no denying that. When teachers are able to give them some options to demonstrate their learning the engagement automatically increases. To leverage that engagement increase, teachers need to give more choice in what students write and how they produce it.
    • How You Can Use This in the Classroom – If you want students to master the art of narrative writing, let them choose what to write about: a fantasy story or realistic fiction. Take it a step further and let the student choose how to tell the story: writing, a podcast, a storybook, etc. It opens up their minds and allows that creativity and play to flow while allowing them to choose the best medium to demonstrate their knowledge. Another idea is to let students choose what they want you to grade in their writing: the intro paragraph, a certain body paragraph, how they develop a character, etc. 
  4. Goal-Setting – We are all instructed to write learning targets and objectives, but what if we wrote those together with the students? If our goal is to construct an informational writing piece, let’s bring that to the students and create a class goal together so we are all aware of where we need to go and what goal we are trying to reach.
    • How You Can Use This in the Classroom – In her book Project-Based Writing, author Liz Prather argues that each student should make their own goals related to their writing piece, and as they move through the writing process, students track and collect data to show mastery of that goal. Now this is really putting students in the driver’s seat and letting them take charge of their own learning. 

Writing is one of the most clear ways to get a student to show his or her thinking. As we are trying to intervene and get students on the right path as far as learning goes, we can’t dismiss the importance of writing as a way to assess students’ knowledge.

How do you assess students (other than multiple-choice tests)? What has been the most successful for you? You can connect with me on Twitter @shawnaeaston03 or on Facebook at

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