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Why We Should Know Whether Students Can Write

May 14, 2015 7 minute Read by Tracy Young

The ability to write effectively and use writing as a tool for learning is essential for students’ success in the middle grades—and beyond.  Research is very clear about that fact, which is why the George W. Bush Institute’s Middle School Matters initiative is focusing on the importance of learning to write well.

Assessing their abilities is one way to determine whether middle school students are acquiring that skill. Standardized tests, as well as classroom exams, inform schools how proficient their students are in writing as well as other subjects.

The Texas Legislature, however, is considering dropping the writing portion of the English I and II exams, which the state requires high school students to pass. The Texas House already has approved that proposal. If the Senate concurs, districts would assess high school writing skills as they see fit.

The problem with this approach is it would lead to a lack of consistency and comparability across the state. Perhaps some districts would do a good job determining whether students are meeting the state’s writing standards. But perhaps others would not.

Does the Legislature think that is acceptable? Is it all right if the state does not know whether all students really meet Texas’ own writing standards?

There’s certainly a risk in not knowing. The May 2014 STAAR writing exam results show that 70% of 7th graders passed the test and only 6% scored at the more advanced level.  This means that 30% did not pass writing at all in 7th grade.

Without information like that, how will schools know when students need writing interventions? Also, how will principals know their teachers need to work on better writing instruction in their classrooms?

The importance of writing cannot be underestimated, either. Students cannot adequately express themselves in college or in the workplace without knowing how to communicate through the written word.

For that reason, the Bush Institute recently asked two experts to share research-based strategies that schools can use to help all students learn to use writing as a tool for learning, communication, and self-expression.

Dr. Tanya Santangelo, associate professor at Arcadia University and Dr. Steve Graham, professor in Teachers College at Arizona State University, explain in the interview below why writing makes middle school students better learners.  I have summarized their answers, but you may read the practice guide for more detailed answers and examples.

What are the important components of an effective writing instruction program? 

One of the best ways to understand what comprises effective writing instruction for middle grades students is to first consider how students become skillful writers.  Research suggests four factors particularly matter.

First, students should know the general characteristics of good writing (e.g., conveying ideas in an organized manner, using language that is appropriate for the target audience), as well as specific features associated with different genres (e.g., including refutation in a persuasive essay, effectively developing characters in a fictional story).

Second, students need to effectively use a variety of strategies that help writers accomplish the multiple steps and processes involved with composing.  These include establishing goals and monitoring progress towards those goals; planning, drafting, revising, and editing text; and overcoming challenges and frustration.

Third, students need to be proficient with the foundational skills required to translate ideas into written text, such as handwriting/keyboarding, vocabulary, spelling, and sentence construction.  Finally, students need to be motivated to engage in the writing process.

What school-wide practices should campuses adopt to help students use writing as a tool for learning?

Four types of writing activities can be used by all middle grades teachers to promote student learning. They are: note-taking, summary writing, generating/answering questions in writing, and analytic writing.

What is the role of assessment with writing and what assessment practices should we use? 

Research clearly documents that assessment is a very important component of an effective middle grades writing program.  In terms of specific recommendations for how to assess writing, several practices have been shown to positively impact students’ writing achievement.

They should be used by all middle grades schools and teachers. Three of these include: monitoring students’ progress in writing, providing teacher feedback, and teaching students how to assess their own writing.

Teachers should regularly monitor students’ progress towards the writing standards associated with their grade level and content area. This type of formative assessment provides the information needed to successfully plan, evaluate, and adjust instruction.  It also identifies students who are struggling with writing and need additional assistance. And it helps identify those who exceed expectations and would benefit from additional challenges.

To complement and supplement the assessment data teachers regularly collect in their classrooms, students’ writing progress should be periodically measured on a school-wide basis using more formal methods. They include a standardized writing test or other validated procedure (e.g., writing curriculum-based measurement). 

How can educators help students who experience significant difficulties with writing?

Even when a high-quality and comprehensive writing instruction program is implemented with integrity, some middle grade students will experience significant difficulties learning to write.  It is essential for schools to develop a system to effectively identify these students and provide the additional support that is needed.

The assessment practices recommended in the third question for monitoring students’ progress in writing can be used to identify struggling writers. However, to fully understand a student’s level of writing achievement and specific areas of strength and need, additional diagnostic assessment is typically required.

These remarks certainly underscore the importance of writing and show how schools can help students learn to write. Yet they also show why the Texas Legislature should not remove assessments that help students learn and develop this fundamental skill.

Tracy Young is director of the Education Reform initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.


Tracy Young
Tracy Young

Tracy Young serves as senior advisor for the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries, a restricted fund at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.  She first joined the George W. Bush Institute in November 2014 as the Director of Education Reform. Before joining the Bush Institute, she served as the Vice President of Public & Government Affairs at the Texas Charter Schools Association. Prior to her non-profit work, Tracy served as Director of Communications for Texas House Speaker Joe Straus from 2009 - 2012.

During the last year of the George W. Bush Administration, she was Deputy Regional Representative for Secretary Spellings, based in Texas. Tracy worked as Special Assistant for Education at the White House during the 2007 No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. In 2005, she was named Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education where she directed the Strategic Communications team and the press office. Prior to her work at the U.S. Department of Education, Tracy served as the Associate Director of Communications at the White House, focused on the Domestic Policy Council. At the start of the George W. Bush Administration, Tracy worked on Communications media events on the White House grounds, including her favorite events of the year – Tee Ball on the South Lawn. Before the start of her public service, Tracy worked with the N.R.C.C. on behalf of congressional candidates across the country. She also worked in the non-profit sector with college students, university and community leaders to increase awareness and participation in volunteer service. Tracy graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and minor in psychology from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA, and is a native of Euless, Texas.

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