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What Constitutes an Assessment? Assessment Strengthens Writers



In the fall, millions of high-schoolers take the SATs, my daughter included. I’ve been percolating this post for a while, so as I made Clare an omelette (high protein)  and poured some orange juice (for extra energy) I grappled with the purpose of the SATs. One of the classes I took for my Educational Leadership degree dealt with assessment and the history of SATs. They were actually a spin-off from IQ tests, designed to strain out the applicants who were over-populating the nation’s top college and universities. (And by the way, if my memory serves me correctly, the IQ tests developed when the military had to quickly differentiate between enlisted men’s potential to be high ranking officers or dishwashers.) While the concepts behind using an assessment like the SAT for college admissions is a source of contention for me, I’m a big believer in the value of assessment as an integral part of instruction and learning.

I think of assessment as having several purposes:

  1. To evaluate and compare students (like the SATs)
  2. To diagnose students (sometimes an IQ test, more often achievement tests or screening tools)
  3. To evaluate teachers (Some states and districts are using the SBAC and PARCC for this purpose.)
  4. To determine whether students have learned what we’ve taught them (For the sake of writing instruction, the on-demand assessments we tend to give at the the end of a unit.)
  5. To determine what instruction would be most beneficial for student learning. (The most useful form of assessment when I am working in classrooms with teachers and students.)

The rest of this post will be focused on the fifth purpose, the one which would fall into James Popham’s definition of formative assessment. James Popham is one of my favorite thinkers around assessment, and for the sake of argument, I am thinking about his definitions of formative and summative assessment as I write. He boils the definition of formative assessment into one relatively simple sentence:


When we think about what we do and how we do it in classrooms with the concept of finding evidence to adjust our instruction as the backdrop to our work, all of a sudden we look at some of our practices a little differently. Whenever we ask students to do something–to answer a question, to have a conversation, to jot a response, to try out a strategy–we are asking them to provide some evidence of their understanding of our teaching and knowledge of a concept. Our challenge becomes how intentional we can be about our interpretation of their responses and decisions about subsequent instruction.

Thinking about just one writing workshop, I am taking a challenge to name some of the opportunities for intentional formative assessment:

  • The connection within the minilesson

I may ask students to remember what they’ve been learning and practicing. Their ability to connect other concepts we’ve taught/learned is important to know. 

  • The engagement of students as I teach

Sometimes I ask another adult to take inventory of what students are doing as I’m teaching for the 5-7 minutes of direct instruction. Regardless, I am always paying attention to whether students are following my lesson. 

  • Student responses if I’m teaching an inquiry lesson.

Frequently, I will have a question that focuses a lesson, and I ask students to provide answers to that question. Their ability to generate responses provides me with valuable information about what they already know. 

  • Student responses during active engagement.

This might be a turn and talk, a stop and jot, or a quick try at a strategy. As a rule of thumb, the more concerned I am about whether a group of students is understanding a concept, the more evidence-based engagement I ask for so the more I ask them to produce something.

  • Student writing during workshop time.

When I am working in a classroom, I always ask students to date their work. That way, the volume alone is an artifact that serves as formative assessment.

  • Student self-assessment.

Students almost always have checklists, and I teach them to use them as you would a grocery shopping list. You know what’s on the list before you start, you check it as you go, you double check it before you pay, and you triple check it before you drive out of the parking lot. Once students learn to self-assess and do it with reflection, fidelity, and honesty, this could be the most powerful form of assessment, as it mandates engagement and builds independence. Self-assessment is one of the most impactful practices on student learning according to John Hattie’s studies as reported in Visible Learning.

  • Conferring practices

When I confer, I begin by asking students what they’re working on. I learn a lot about their intentionality by their response. I also ask them to restate my compliment to them and my teaching point in their own words. Their ability to restate what I’ve said in the conference provides me information about their engagement and attention.

  • End of Workshop Share time

Sometimes at the end of the workshop, I will ask students to mark with a sticky note a part of their work from that day that they are proud of, and I ask them to explain why they are proud of that work.

All of these opportunities, and more, exist for formative assessments within almost any writing workshop. In addition to these checkpoints, we also have more planned activities to evaluate what students know and are able to do and adjust instruction accordingly. Some of these opportunities include:

  • Making sure to use pre-assessments to provide understanding of high leverage teaching points. Sometimes we can find out we can teach some lessons quickly, and sometimes we realize we have to back way up and do some re-teaching of prerequisite concepts.
  • Asking students to flashdraft (quick-write is another term) a piece of whatever genre you’re studying.
  • Incorporating mini-celebrations into units where students compliment specific features of each other’s writing. What they notice and write provides a window into what they understand as writers.

I’d love for SATs to go away. I’d also provide a going away party for ACTs and Subject Tests. However, formative assessment plays a vital role in student learning when we are intentional, reflective, and responsive. I love Popham’s reminder that:

It’s worth stressing that because the formative assessment process deals with ongoing instruction, any teacher-made modifications in instructional activities must focus on students’ mastery of the curricular aims currently being pursued. It’s not a matter of looking at test data and deciding to try a new approach next time; it’s a matter of doing something different (or differently) now.

I can’t wait to read what the rest of my friends write about assessment and best practices around it in our classrooms.



To celebrate this series, we will be giving away a copy of Conferring with Young Writers: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do.


  • This giveaway is for one copy of Conferring with Young Writers: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do by Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer McDonough (
  • Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers ( for donating a copy of this book.
  • For a chance to win one copy of Ackerman and McDonough’s Conferring with Young Writers: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do (, please leave a reaction to any post in the blog series, including this one, by Sunday, November 6th at 11:59 p.m. ET.
  • Dana Murphy will use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names she will announce in our blog series’ IN CASE YOU MISSED IT POST on Monday, November 7th
  • You may leave one comment on every post in our Assessment Strengthens Writers blog series.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Dana can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Dana will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – CONFERRING WITH YOUNG WRITERS. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.



There’s more! We have shared a few links to past posts about assessment in writing instruction.

Making the Most of Pre-Assessments

Looking at Student Writing

Where Do We Go Next? Use a Checklist!

Using Assessment Tools to Teach Transference

Conversations about Standards-Based Report Cards: Do Your Students Know How They’re Doing?

Melanie Meehan View All

I am the Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, CT, and I love what I do. I get to write and inspire others to write! Additionally, I am the mom to four fabulous daughters and the wife of a great husband.

12 thoughts on “What Constitutes an Assessment? Assessment Strengthens Writers Leave a comment

  1. So much power in formative assesments FOR our students! If they know the targets, they should be able to re-calibrate just as the teacher does!

    Thanks, Melanie! I will have to come back to this!


  2. I plan to share this with my colleagues at our next PLC time. This article has resonated with me. I really liked the idea of having the students share what they are most proud of. Of course, I love the idea of having them restate the compliment and teaching point. Great in so many ways!


  3. As a coach I am always trying to help teachers think of all of the ways in which they are assessing their students to inform their instruction all of the time. Thanks for sharing this- very helpful information.


  4. Your post is so timely for me! This is our first year of writing workshop and using Calkins’ UofS. As the teachers give the first post on-demand, some are jotting down mini-lessons needs, which is so nice to see. They are actually using data to instruct, instead of leaving data to gather dust!


  5. thanks. These are great examples of places to use assessment in writing workshop. I’d like to add that asking 2-3 students to give you feedback on your mini-lesson is a great way to get additional assessment data on engagement during the lesson.


  6. You gave lots of specific instances within the workshop where formative assessment can and should be happening. I just spent a day listening to Chris Jakicic speak about formative assessment. She focused some time on the difference in check for understanding vs. formative assessment. The difference is in the check for understanding this is a pulse on the group (thumbs up/down, listening in to pairs), wherein the formative assessment is a measure taken on every student. The the feedback in both is descriptive, not evaluative.


  7. I like your comparison of a self-assessment checklist for students to a grocery list and teaching them to check it multiple times. I am going to try this.


  8. I am an instructional specialist for special education. The biggest complaint I hear is that there is not enough time to teach writing in a pull-out classroom. I stress the importance of keeping lessons short, focusing on only one to two skills, and conferencing with students about their writing. I love this information and can’t wait to share!


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