Before Whittier Elementary School opened its doors here in 1998, its principal and teachers knew something about their incoming students’ writing: It wasn’t persuasive.
Staff members first noted low writing-test scores collected from the students’ former schools by Maryland and the Frederick County district, and identified the problems by reading writing samples collected by the district. Those samples showed that the students did not know how to tailor their messages to particular audiences or how to clarify facts that supported their arguments.
“Once we identified that weakness [in the test scores], we pulled out the papers and saw what the problem was,” said Caroline B. Strum, the principal of the 3-year-old school just outside this small city in central Maryland.
“The score is empty until you look behind the score.”
The intense focus on students’ work seen at Whittier Elementary is becoming increasingly common as educators seek ways to improve achievement in the standards and testing environment that permeates American schools. Unless schools do a better job of collecting and analyzing the products of learning, teaching experts say, the drive to align classroom instruction with states’ academic standards and testing programs will be incomplete.
For teachers, examples of student work translate the abstract concepts outlined in such standards and provide vivid illustrations of what the end results should look like.
“Teachers know what they’re supposed to teach and what the student [work] should look like after they teach it,” said Gary Heath, the chief of the arts and sciences branch at the Maryland education department. “It changes the mind-set from what teachers do to what students do.”
Likewise, students can see what’s expected of them in ways that scores on a large-scale state assessment don’t show.
“Kids have to know: This is the standard. This is what it means. This is what it looks like,” said Sonia C. Hernandez, the president of LAAMP/LEARN Regional School Reform Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to improve Los Angeles schools.
“You can’t talk about performance standards in terms of cut scores [on tests],” added Ms. Hernandez. “It’s got to look real to students and teachers.”
Integrated Into Standards
Debates over what students should know and be able to do dominated school policymaking in the 1990s. At the same time, though, teachers and policymakers laid the groundwork to define what students need to do to demonstrate that they reached the standards, says one prominent researcher.
“The ‘90s saw two things take hold,” said Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. “One of them was high-stakes tests. So was the idea of examining student work against a criterion.”
Several states are integrating examples of students’ work into their standards initiatives.
New York’s curriculum frameworks include examples of how students solved math problems, created artwork, and met the demands of the state’s standards in other subjects. Massachusetts releases sample responses to test questions that require written responses from students and explains why those students scored where they did on a scale of 0 to 4.
In California, a consortium of school districts is evaluating student work against the standards set by the state. Illinois teachers are collecting examples of student work that are aligned with the state’s new performance standards. They will be published for educators to study.
Other states, including Maryland, encourage districts to concentrate more closely on examining student work and how it stacks up against state criteria.
“Our high-performing schools have made that switch where the focus on student work has changed dramatically,” the education department’s Mr. Heath said.
In Frederick County—a growing, increasingly suburban area about 50 miles west of Baltimore—the 37,000-student district publishes a series of so- called anchor performances, or benchmarked examples of student work, at every grade level and in every subject.
The anchor book for 5th grade language arts, for example, includes 75 pages of student writing in four formats: original writing, factual reports, persuasive editorials, and business letters. Each section includes several examples of writing that have earned ratings at each point on a 0-4 scale.
One neatly written essay argues that the U.S. Mint should stop producing pennies. “People don’t care about pennies because they leave them on counters and when people pass pennies on the sidewalk, most people don’t even bother to pick them up,” the student wrote. The piece ranked at the top of the scale because it was well-reasoned and logically ordered. It also had very few grammatical or spelling mistakes.
By contrast, a letter to a newspaper arguing that children shouldn’t be required to go to school after they complete the 5th grade scored at the bottom of the scale. “They would have to teach us more, and school would be longer,” the student wrote. “So then when we get out of school at 5th grade I can know as much as some one in high school.”
The three-sentence letter is “illogical and confusing” and has “little or no information to support” the argument, the anchor book says. It received a 0.
At Whittier Elementary School, teachers analyze their students’ writing samples to teach writing.
After deducing that students don’t support their arguments with facts and fail to consider what material is persuasive for the intended audience, teachers come up with specific strategies for addressing the weaknesses.
Beverly Long, a 5th grade teacher, has her students write public officials to practice writing for different audiences.
For one recent project, they were assigned to write a letter to their congressional representative to argue that the federal government should increase funding for either space exploration or environmental protection. For another, the students wrote county school officials suggesting ways they could narrow the gap in math achievement between boys and girls.
At the computer lab recently, Ms. Long’s students composed pamphlets asking their parents to take them to Luray Caverns, a Virginia tourist destination.
By reviewing juried samples of student work and understanding how they match up to content standards, teachers are able to make specific changes in their instruction, experts say.
“It turns teachers on,” said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education. “They look at it, and they learn something from it.” The Washington- based council is conducting a project in which nine countries compare students’ work.
Eventually, students learn how to evaluate their own work, said Ms. Resnick.
When students don’t understand the link, students will tell evaluators their work is good “because I got an A,” she said.
In places where analyzing student work is part of the school culture, she said, students will say things like: “I think this could be better with more details,” or “I think that’s a good topic sentence.”
When that happens, the school is well on its way to reaching standards, according to Michelle Krantz, the associate superintendent for elementary schools for the Frederick County district.
“We have to be able to judge our own performance, and we have to be motivated to improve it,” Ms. Krantz said. “When [students are] out in the real world, there’s not going to be anybody doing it for them.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Teachers Examining Student Work To Guide Curriculum, Instruction