Evaluating Writing: Such a Challenging Task


This is one of those tasks that I KNOW is so important but that I just dread.  Whether it's because I lack confidence or that I am still after 20+ years unsure of exactly what "4th grade writing" is, I struggle every time I need to evaluate student work.

This quarter our big unit was opinion writing.  It's a great unit--and an important one, I believe.  We learn about stating clear opinions, supporting them with quality details, using transition words and phrases, and ending the essay with a solid conclusion.

But what does it mean to do this "proficiently"?  We have a district rubric that we use (thanks to Lucy Calkins), but for some reason, I just never feel like it gets to the meat of what we are teaching and expecting.  What does it mean to "Make deliberate word choices to convince my readers, perhaps by emphasizing or repeating words that would make my readers feel emotions."?  Specifically--what does it mean to do that AT A FOURTH GRADE LEVEL?

We spend time looking over student work samples and we can usually come to some agreement about what pieces rise to the top, but we all struggle with really pinpointing what grade level writing is.  Then there is the issue of grading demand piece versus process pieces.  If you grade a piece that has been shared, peer edited, teacher revised, and so on--what can you grade?  The final product or how students handled the writing process?

As I was filling out the rubric on a demand opinion piece that I gave yesterday, I was beginning to notice that lots of my scores seemed to be similar.  I seem to be reluctant to ever give too many of the "top" scores because it feels like they maybe could have done a LITTLE more...and I think that's because I am not super clear on what that magical standard is.

So today I thought I'd try something...I made a little quarter sheet to staple on top of the required rubric that highlighted each of the key lessons I taught during the unit.  I provided myself a little 2, 1, 0 scoring guide where I could "gut feeling" measure whether I felt the student showed no evidence of applying the lesson, some evidence, or solid evidence of the taught skills.  It looked like this.
It was kind of interesting to cross check it with the main rubric.  I feel like my checklist might do a better job of showing the student how they performed because it clearly states the features I was looking for in their piece. The district rubric perhaps gives a better overall "flavor" of their performance on the essay unit.  I'd love to have people chime in!  Do you find grading writing as challenging as I do?  Do you struggle to find the time to meet with students to go through their writing to help them make changes?  I'd love to have people share their best and brightest ideas!  Hope everyone is having a great weekend--and I look forward to your ideas!


  1. I can definitely relate to what you're saying here. I taught writing for 4th and 5th for 3 years and now I just teach it to 4th graders. I was always frustrated by the rubric the school used which just included the standards from our school (we're independent) because it was SO VAGUE! So, I changed it. My rubric changes with each cycle of writing. I keep all lessons we have had and I add each new lesson to the rubric (only if they apply to the genre - any that don't apply to the genre of the current unit are deleted from the rubric.) I have this to be much easier for me to grade and much more helpful for the kids to understand exactly what they're trying to achieve with each writing project.
    Are We There Yet?

  2. I know exactly what you mean. Scoring student writing is difficult for me too. We are just finishing our expository writing (animal reports) and our rubric is BEYOND vague. I really like your short checklist you put with your piece here. I think I will have to sit down and do something similar for our reports. Thanks for sharing your ideas!
    On the Trail of Learning

  3. I'm so on the same page. Writing has always been the hardest part of my day. The kids love it but I always struggle with guiding them and providing feedback to everyone. It's definitely an area I need to pay more attention to and beef up.
    By the way ... it's almost scary how relevant your posts are to what is happening in my classroom. You're posts are what we are in the middle of or what we are getting ready to start. Just like this one - we are going to start opinion pieces in February!
    I love your ideas and can use them almost immediately in my classroom. You push my thinking and inspire me to think outside the box. I don't know how you find time to do it all but I'm sure glad you do!!! Thanks!

  4. Hey Meg, I think we're all on the same page about this. It's rare that I feel that my sixth graders are doing everything they can to write well, but on the other hand, I question whether I'm being too hard on them. I like your rubric much better than the more generic one because it gets at specific things you taught them. And I think that's more meaningful for the kids, too. Your rubric gets my vote!

  5. The generic content, organization, focus, voice, and conventions rubric just does NOT cut it in my opinion. When I know what I have focused on during the teaching of a writing unit, I make a rubric that reflects those elements. It is much more specific and kid-friendly. My students know EXACTLY what I am looking for. They have the rubric ahead of time, too. They use it as a checklist during the writing process and I think the work they produced is better for it. ~Stacy http://new-in-room-202.blogspot.com

  6. I as well struggle with grading writing after 15 odd years in 4th grade. I love the rubric you came up with.