3 Pitfalls to Avoid While Assessing Student Writing at the Beginning of the Year- and What You Can Do Instead.

Several years ago, after summer PD in data driven instruction, I decided to use these back to school writing assessments to build my writing instruction for the year. I sat down the Saturday after these were collected to write my curriculum based on all 160+ writing assignments. My goal was to create specific mini-lessons for each student’s specific needs. I spent days pouring over every piece of writing, looking for all of the possible lessons each and every student would need throughout the entire school year. Then, according to my plan, I would backward design a perfect, and specific, writing curriculum for every one of my 160+ students.

By Sunday night, while still looking at 50 writing assignments that needed feedback and assessing, I realized, with a great deal of frustration and exhaustion, that this was not a sustainable idea. I could not build an individual plan for each child. I had not yet even tackled the idea of how I would combine the data to create a curriculum map. I threw my hands in the air, and declared that data driven instruction was completely impossible.

After I took some time to calm down –and stop crying-  I realized that I was in need of a new plan. A plan that would keep my sanity, help me get to know my students (which helps with the real business of teaching), and provide me the ability collect that much needed data.

Instead of specific details, I decided I needed a general gist of student writing need. When I was writing down all of the specific needs of each child, during my misguided adventure, I noticed that most students overlapped on nearly all of the essential skills.

Now that I am older and hopefully wiser, I simply create a list of the essential skills (grammar, sentence structure, comma usage, word choice, sentence fluency, idea development). Then I place a tally mark next to these skills (or add a new skill as I see issues arise) as I read through the students back to school writing assessments. With this, I can get a general idea of student need as I plan my writing units.

Now, since I do not fall into the second pitfall of assessing back to school writing, this task takes one or two hours, and I can focus on that critical, yet often overlooked, job of getting to know my students!

The second pitfall of back to school writing assessments is providing a great deal of feedback on your students’ work. When I first started teaching at the secondary level, I thought it was so important to show students all of the ways they can/should improve their writing with each assignment. I worried that if I did not correct every error, they would learn that these errors were acceptable or even correct. For every writing assignment, I would spend hours writing all over each student’s work- even writing lengthy explanations to help them learn from this feedback. As I handed these back, I would watch to see the students read this feedback and have amazing lightbulb moments of understanding and growth from these words. It did not take long for me to realize that this was not happening. Not ever.

This is just not how students learn the lovely nuances of writing. In fact, it can have lasting negative effects of shutting down students to writing in general. When met with constant criticism- who wouldn’t learn to hate writing?

When I read through the back to school writing assessments, I do mark up their work- but only with positive remarks. This helps me to build a positive report with my students, and build those relationships that are so important to learning.

In future writing assessments, I will make it clear to students with a rubric, prior to drafting, what specific skills I am looking for, and only assess those specific skills within their work. This helps to save my sanity by reducing those endless hours of assessing writing- and save my students from that dreaded red pen!

The final pitfall of assessing back to school writing is choosing a boring/tired topic for your assessment.  

Every student has written about their summer vacations, favorite novels, best friends, favorite subject in school, favorite teacher, and favorite sport. By 7th grade, students can nearly begin to tell teachers what the assignment will be before it has even been introduced to the class! I, like many other teachers, want to connect to my students, get to know them, and learn more about their summer. I, like many other teachers, also feel that students enjoy summer, and will therefore enjoy writing about their summer vacations. However, in an effort to avoid the eye roll and exaggerated yawns, I have created several very specific and interesting writing prompts that will engage these writers with topics that are uniquely new to them.

For example, instead of directing students to write about their summer, I ask students to write numerous sentences (at least 10 sentences for secondary students) about their favorite FIVE MINUTES of summer. I explain that I do not want to hear about the entire day or event. I only want the very best five minutes of that day or event. To create ten sentences, students will need to be very descriptive and detailed- a true test of their writing abilities.

To download this digital and printable freebie click on the on the image!



I do like to offer as much voice and choice as possible to my students. I have created 12 unique prompts for my students to choose from - a few of these unique prompts are displayed below! To download—or to obtain the digital links for Google Apps—for these 12 prompts click on any one of the images!

Avoiding these three pitfalls of assessing student work at the start of the year will help you – and your students—start the year off right! Wishing you all the best, teachers, as you venture back into those classrooms filled with passion and vigor for changing young lives for the better!



Liz is a collaborator on teachwriting.org and the founder of Teach BeTween the Lines. She has been teaching for over ten years; she has loved growing young minds through literature and the art of crafting the written word. She is currently working on her doctorate in Education from the University of Minnesota, and holds an M.A. in Education from St. Mary’s University, Minnesota. She loves to write short stories in her free time, especially in those cold Minnesota winters. She is supported by a wonderful family made better by the addition of her two beautiful children.