Essay Assessment across Content Areas
Length: 1976 words (5.6 double-spaced pages)
Literacy is an important issue in education. It is vital that students of all ages demonstrate the skills of reading, writing, and communication. Curriculums across the state of New Jersey as well as through out parts of the United States push for ways of including literacy processes in every content area. Administrators and school officials see written and oral communication as abilities students should utilize in their social studies, science, and mathematics classrooms, not just in language arts, English, and foreign language. In order to expand the literacy of all pupils, school curriculums now include journals, essay examinations, timed writing, response questions, and open-ended questions across all subjects. Math teachers must now grade open-ended questions, science students write in journals detailing their experiences in laboratory work, while teachers of United States history lean towards essay tests in contrast to the multiple-choice exams of the past. Essays provide numerous benefits for both students and teachers. They enhance literacy and sharpen writing skills in many ways. For a truly enriched and engaging curriculum, every teacher must include essay and/or open-ended assessments.
Test experts say, “essay tests do the best job of tapping students’ higher-level thought processes and creativity” in compared to other assessments like true/false or fill-in-the-blank, common objective tests (Arends 238). Through this form of evaluation, students express their thoughts in a complex style that highlights their points and ideas most effectively. Essays allow a student to explain his or her position in an argument, opinion of a text, decision in a problem set, and so on. They are not black and white, which leaves room for creativity. The student must engage his or her cognitive processes so that he or she demonstrates the thesis clearly. Answering objective-based questions, such as fill-in-the-blank, test a student’s ability to recall material learned in class. Essays, on the other hand, require that students apply what they learned in various ways. Students must demonstrate an understanding of the subject, not just an ability to regurgitate facts sponged into their brains during a lesson. A student with the capacity to explain himself in an essay employs a higher-level of cognitive process than one asked to decide whether a statement is true or false.
Essays also require students to organize their thoughts and responses so that they are clear as well as thorough and accurate. For these reasons, teachers of all subject areas should use essay writing of various forms and to different extents in their assessments.
In an English literature class, for example, a teacher may ask her students to respond to a passage of their choosing in To Kill a Mockingbird that deals with Scout Finch’s loss of innocence. This provides the students with liberty in their responses. For one, the students choose the quote, giving them freedom from which context of the text their individual papers pertain. Each student can find a quotation that, in his or her mind, best demonstrates Scout’s coming of age. The essay then follows the thought process of each student as he or she responds to the passage and its meanings. With such an essay, students can read into texts differently from their peers, but as long as they explain themselves and back up their beliefs with references to the work, their theories are relevant. Language arts classes often include timed writing in their curriculums. Such activities prepare students for standardized tests such as the HSPA and SAT, in which students have a specific amount of time to respond to a passage of text or situation. Practicing these skills in class better prepares students for the tests they will encounter in the future. Timed writing also helps eliminate the stress of the activity over time with continuous use.
Foreign language classes pose prime opportunities for essay evaluations. In a Spanish I class, students should make sentences on tests that use various vocabulary words from each lesson. In a Spanish II class, such an exercise should expand to show students’ increased abilities. On an examination, teachers may present a list of vocabulary from various lessons and have students write letters to their teacher telling them of their summer vacations in Spanish. For higher-level foreign language courses, such as French III or IV, students must demonstrate their abilities to conjugate verbs appropriately and to utilize acquired vocabulary effectively. Teachers should construct tests that have open-ended questions asking students questions of various types that require vastly different responses. Reading foreign literature and writing essays in that language is another great way of assessing student understanding in the language for the highest-level classes.
Teachers in areas of social studies should utilize essays in their assessments as well. After a unit on World War II, for example, teachers feel inclined to quiz their students’ knowledge of dates, places, important people, and so on. Usually, social studies teachers use objective tests with numerous multiple-choice questions that only test each student’s memorization skills. To add some depth to a history exam, teachers can do a few different things. There can be essay topics that deal with the unit—such as the rise of Hitler, Roosevelt’s administration, rationing and the home front, etc—that are given to the students before the test. This way, on test day, students can choose which topic they want to expand on at the conclusion of the multiple-choice section. Another option is that have a series of open-ended questions for a portion of the test. Questions could be ones such as “Other than the US and Breat Britain, name one country that supported the allies and explain its contribution” or “How did the roles of women on the US home front change during WWII?” Through use of essays and open-ended questions, social studies teachers utilize students’ writing skills while testing their knowledge of the subject.
The sciences use writing and in more ways than most students and educators realize. In chemistry laboratory experiments, students keep records and detailed descriptions of their exercises and results. Biology students in many schools keep journals that document growing patterns of plants and living conditions of animals over the course of a semester or year. Teachers should expand upon these writings in their assessments to further student literacy in the subject. Like social studies classes, science test often consist of objective tests with fill-in-the-blank and matching sections. Including an essay or open-ended area is easy. Teachers can present a situation—a woman finds her apples spoil when she keeps them in a bowl on the counter while her bananas last—and have students design an experiment appropriate for the dilemma at hand. Not only should students design a clear experiment using the scientific method, but they should also explain in a short essay why they feel this is the proper way to test the controls of the situation.
Mathematics is perhaps the most difficult subject for including essay assessment, but it is still possible. Most math topics, such as algebra, geometry and calculus, seem like mere questions of right or wrong. Either a student solves a problem right or it is wrong, correct? That does not have to be the case. Sometimes it is more important for a student to explain why he or she chose to follow certain steps in solving a problem. In a pre-calculus class, a teacher can use open-ended questions on test to find out student rationale. If there are come equations or formulas that have more than one way of solving them, ask the students to defend the route they chose in arriving at the answer. On the Calculus AP exam, this is a technique used, so this is a great way of preparing students for that as well. A second way of using writing on a mathematics test would be by asking students to create a word problem. Teachers can present a graph, an equation, a chart, etc, and ask students to construct a detailed word problem that either utilizes the given material or results in the equation as an answer. Using writing skills in a math class engages both sides of student thought processes, calling on verbal as well as logical skills.
Using Essays in all subjects will give students consistent practice in literacy and will strengthen their skills fully. These varied writing practices, though beneficial for the students, create difficulty in grading from a teacher’s point of view. Essay assessments call for specialized evaluation in comparison to basic objective tests. Essays rarely deal with “right or wrong,” but rather test students on through application and argument instead. Many techniques exist in grading essays effectively so that evaluation examines content application rather than complete accuracy. As long as teachers follow the methods of developed by experts in assessing essays, they will leave bias behind and grade fairly and consistently.
Teachers using essays as a form of assessment must have a scoring rubric. This device “provides a rather detailed description of how a particular piece of writing or performance should look and the criteria used to judge various levels of performance” (Arends 238). Teacher should provide students with scoring rubrics in advance so that each student is aware of the abilities and processes expected of him or her. Rubrics supply every student with an equal opportunity in effectively completing the essay based on the specifications of the teacher. This method is especially applicable to English literature and foreign language classes where writings are lengthy assignments done at home or as timed writing activities in class.
For essay assessments used in science or social studies, holistic scoring is best procedure. Through this form of grading, teachers “skim through all the essays and select samples that could be judged as very poor, average, or outstanding” (Arends 239). Since journal entries or experiment designs will vary and there are no clear right and wrong responses, holistic scoring allows the teacher to see how each student approached the task in contrast to the others. A student with a more detailed entry or design should receive a higher mark then a student with the most basic response. This technique gives teachers a way of judging merit without focusing on content since journals can be so broad and varied. For the experiment design, teachers must make sure students have the basics covered, of course, but teachers should look at the extent to which they explain their reasoning holistically.
For essays that do deal with facts, such as open-ended history questions, another grading technique is appropriate. Teachers should write a sample answer to the question or situation, providing every possible fact or answer possible. Then, the teacher assigns a point value to each part of the response. When grading the students’ examinations, the teacher then gives credit for each part the student includes as prescribed in the teacher sample. This provides a basis for scoring that eliminates bias and inequality. If a student includes every aspect the teacher wanted, then he or she receives full credit. If not, the teacher gives partial credit for the desired items the student did include.
There is no doubt that essay assessments benefit students as well as teachers. Writing in general improves literacy and each student’s ability to formulate thoughts clearly and effectively. Essays allow for more student creativity and higher-level thought processes than objective tests. Teachers across all content areas can activate student cognitive abilities to their greatest potential with essays, providing students countless opportunities to apply their knowledge. Social studies, science, math, English, language arts, and foreign language teachers each have equal prospects for evaluating students with essays as well as for grading them effectively and without bias. With essays, students do not just verify their knowledge in a content area, but improve their writing abilities as well. Teachers should use essays and writing prompts in many capacities because they provide a flawless way of evaluating and assessing student achievement and progress while reinforcing literacy.