Writing Tests Are Not The Answer You Are Looking For

This article was originally published 15/02/2018

We’ve written this post because there has been a lot of discussion about the Writing Framework recently and this has caused some to romanticise the days of writing tests.  

How the DfE/STA decides to assess writing tells you a lot about their views of the craft of writing, and of course their feelings towards apprentice writers. It also has profound effects on the methodology and writing pedagogy of the teaching profession. It influences the way things are taught. Therefore, what is deemed important in a test will inevitably direct the way teachers teach. So, you have to ask yourself, is it likely that a high-stakes test will test what should be being taught? I ask this question because we as teachers know full well we will be asked to do what needs to be done in terms of writing instruction and activity in order to produce good scores. I have no problem with this in principle, and indeed it can be the strength of any assessment system, but will a writing test encourage good writing instruction and activity? I have my doubts, and I explain why below.

 As a starting point, consider the following three views:

‘Assessment and testing are used for monitoring purposes of various kinds, the focus is not just on an individual child’s learning and how this is to be reported to parents. The overriding purpose becomes the regulation and standardisation of a teacher’s practice in order to achieve political and policy goals that may be serving agendas other than the good of the individual child…’ Locke (2015 p. 213)

‘National standards constitute a huge pressure on teachers to conform and comply. Where teachers do end up serving the extrinsic master, the result is a subscription to a particular construction (discourse) of teaching writing and writing assessment.’ – Locke (2015 p. 213)

‘Writing has become less “like a real writer writes” in that the focus of writing has shifted to form over content and product over process. In addition, teachers emphasize that they teach students to submerge their voices as they write to inauthentic audiences.’ – Au & Gourd (2013)

I would now like to pose a few questions to those flirting with the idea of reinstating writing tests as we formerly knew them. They are as follows:

  • If a writing test is an attempt to determine whether a student can do something, we need to ask why is this information needed and who is it going to be useful to?
  • As teachers, we would then need to say: now we’ve given these tests, what do the results mean, and what do we do with them? How am I to put this information to work?
  • Are these writing tests valid? Do they tell us effectively what needs to be known? Are they reliable? Would a child get the same score if they did the same test on a different occasion or if they were ask to write on a different subject? 
  • Was the test too narrow and insensitive to measure all the things our school is trying to achieve?
  • Does the test focus on too thin a slice of what is important in writer development?

Now, you probably should, maybe, possibly, potentially, also consider the children in all this. You know, the ones that have to take the test. Any assessment should have a clear and realistic purpose for the person who has to take it. Writing is a social act. If children are faced with a set of questions to answer with no purpose or authentic context in which to tackle the writing situation – then the writing won’t even represent their normal writerly behaviour. The test goes against what research says children require to write at their best; writing with a focus on the potential audience and purpose, and being able to construct their texts over time using a variety of recursive writing processes (Young & Ferguson 2020, in press). How a child interprets and engages with a test task also significantly affects their response to it and therefore the quality of their writing product. Beyond this, you also need to consider whether a writing test favours children who are better able to write for a single long period, are able to write using a certain type of writing process, have a higher threshold for stress and possess a greater level of social maturity. Children have little experience in taking writing tests – how do you suppose they will gain this experience, and what effect will it have on their view of how writing is crafted out in the real world?

What do the tests mean for children?

  • Writing for a test has little function beyond external evaluation by a stranger who doesn’t know the children and whose remit doesn’t involve helping them after the test.
  • Children must write on topics they have not selected, may not be motivated to write about, or don’t have knowledge of – thus the test is unable to assess their true ability to write.
  • Children are not given enough time to engage in the recursive and time consuming processes involved in writing (processes which are fundamental to how good writers write).
  • A single writing sample, produced under timed conditions, tells you little about a child’s writing ability.
  • Writing tests pay little attention to what young writers think, value or do when they write.

Concluding thoughts

In order to shed light on evaluation within our culture of tests, Fu and Lamme (2002) studied two nine year-olds and their writing portfolios. In each case, when the teacher, parent, and child sat down with the child’s portfolio, they saw clear improvement in the compositions, and everyone, especially the children, articulated that they noticed changes in quality, length, and level of enjoyment. Tests don’t provide as much information as the students’ work and the collective perceptions of it (Hansen & Kissel 2011)

Having a writing test which simply tells us that some children are better able to pass a test than others does not help the situation. Assessment at its best has what is called ‘consequential validity’. This means the assessment gathers a variety of information, at diverse times, and under differing circumstances. It establishes connections between assessment, policy and teaching practice. Assessment such as this, throughout primary school, is better than a writing test because it gives information about a student’s development as a writer and importantly gives you plenty of opportunity to act on what you find.

Despite educational research stating for a long time that the focus should be on children’s processes and not exclusively on their writing products (Young & Ferguson in press), it’s supremely ironic that writing tests historically ignore this. It means, through testing, you’re not only teaching children a misconception about writing but you also won’t be able to infer from their test result how well a child might perform under normal, everyday writing conditions. Conditions which enable them to use all the writing processes, in their preferred way, and at their own pace.

A ‘best test,’ a test that can provide exactly what you need to know, that can guide future teaching and be easy to administer and interpret, simply doesn’t exist. The ultimate goal of assessment should always be to improve teaching. The idea of a writing test as currently understood is therefore wholly unsuitable, would be inaccurate, would encourage misconceptions about writing to be taught and therefore would not serve the desired purpose.

Putting it simply: ‘an assign and assess approach to writing instruction doesn’t help students very much’ (McCann & Knapp 2019 p.80). If reinstated, tests would cause damage to children’s ongoing writing development. Writing tests are not the answer you are looking for.

This article is based on the following papers:

  • Evaluating Language Development by Farr, R., & Beck, M., (2003) In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.) Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed., pp. 590–599). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
  • High-stakes assessment in the language arts: the piper plays, the players dance, but who pays the price? by Hoffman, J., Paris., S., Salas, R., Patterson, E., Assaf, L., (2003) In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squire, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.) Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed., pp. 590–599). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.
  • K-12 Students as writers by Hansen, J., Kissel, B., (2013) In Lapp, D., Fisher, D., Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (3rd ed. pp. 271-276) London: Routledge
  • Au, W., Gourd, K., (2013) Asinine Assessment: Why High-Stakes Testing Is Bad for Everyone, Including English Teachers In The English Journal Vol. 103, No. 1
  • Barrs, M., (2019) Teaching bad writing, English in Education, 53:1, 18-31
  • Locke, T., (2015) Developing Writing Teachers London: Routledge
  • McCann, T., Knapp, J., (2019) Teaching on Solid Ground: Knowledge Foundations for the Teacher of English Guilford: USA
  • Wohlwend, K., (2009) Dilemmas and discourses of learning to write: Assessment as a contested site. Language Arts, 86(5), 341-351
  • Young, R., & Ferguson, F. (2020) Real-World Writers London: Routledge
  • Young, R., & Ferguson F. (in press) Writing For Pleasure: theory, research and practice London: Routledge

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