Monday, March 05, 2012

Student Writing Expectations (MCAS Ready)

In Massachusetts, every fourth grader spends one day a year taking the MCAS composition test, and then they spend two more half-days reading and responding to text ranging in genre.

The composition test requires fourth graders to plan, draft and write a final copy of a lengthy, organized personal narrative that demonstrates craft, voice and accurate grammar.  The reading response test requires students to read text, answer multiple choice questions and respond to an open response question with a well written paragraph.

As you can imagine, teachers in Massachusetts spend a lot of time focused on this task throughout the year.  As the test approaches, we give students greater independence with practicing the task.  Hence, I have twenty-two personal narratives and twenty-two reading response packets to read and evaluate today. What am I looking for?

Story Mountain Planner

The Personal Narrative
I will assess each child's essay to notice exemplary work as well as one or two areas for growth. Specifically, I will look for the following writing elements:
  1. Beginning, Middle and End: Did students follow the story mountain planner in some way to tell a complete story?
  2. Organization: Do the ideas flow from one to the next, and is the text written in a way that's easy to read and understand? 
  3. Length: Is the length of the students story equal to three or more pages?
  4. Dialogue: Is dialogue used to make the characters come alive in the reader's mind as well as to advance the plot?
  5. Craft: Has the student employed the craft we've studied and practiced: simile, metaphor, alliteration, "the power of three" and repetition.
  6. Grammar: Do students use capitalization, punctuation and other grammatical rules we've reviewed?
  7. Voice: Does the child's voice come through in the story?  Is it a topic that the author "wants to tell the world about," remembers well and appears to enjoy writing?
  8. Catchy Title/Opening Sentence: Does the story start with a title and opening line that draws the reader into the story?
  9. Heart of the Story: Has the author included words, phrases or images that lets the reader understand why this story is important to the author?
  10. Story Ending: Did the author leave the reader with something to think about at the end of the story?
  11. Handwriting: Is the handwriting or print neat enough to read?
Reading Response
In a similar fashion, I will review students' reading response work.  While reviewing that work, I will look for the following criteria:
  1. Topic Sentence: Did the writer start the response by restating the question as a sentence?
  2. Direct Quotes from the Text: Did the writer use three or more direct quotes from the text to support the answer? 
  3. Explanations: Did the writer explain why each quote answers the question asked?
  4. Conclusion: Did the author conclude the answer by restating the topic sentence in a different way and summarizing the main point(s) of the answer.
While many in Massachusetts do not agree with the strategy of pulling direct quotes from the text to support answers, I favor this approach as it's worthy practice for what's to come. We all know that optimal written responses at later grades and in our professional lives profit from the use of direct quotes as well as students' own explanations. Further, for reluctant readers, finding a direct quote prompts one to go directly to the text looking for specific words and phrases to answer the question asked which is an action reluctant readers will sometimes avoid. This is an example of both the process and graphic organizer I use to prepare students for this type of writing.

I will use a response sheet as I evaluate each child's writing. How do you evaluate fourth grade writing? If you live in Massachusetts, what do you do to prepare for the MCAS in the final weeks leading up to the test? Is there any important criteria for either piece that I've missed?

While there are many opinions related to standardized tests, the reality is that the tests currently exist and play a big part in school culture. We make every effort to integrate the standards into meaningful, relevant student projects and daily lessons. We also make every effort to give students the skills, strategies, concepts and knowledge to do their bests on these tests.