Assessed Writing Ability

July 24, 2017

Timed essay exams provide a more valid way to assess writing than did the highly reliable multiple choice tests of grammar and punctuation of the 1950s and 1960s, which, at best, only indirectly assessed writing ability.

However, as is often the case, the tradeoff for greater validity was reduced reliability.

Yancey notes that this issue was addressed by such scholars as Edward White, Rickard Lloyd Jones, Karen Greenberg, Lee Odell, Charles Cooper, and others, who pioneered essay tests that used writing prompts, as well as assessment protocols that selected “anchor” papers, provided scoring guides, and implemented methods for calculating “acceptable” agreement among readers (490).

The practice of “norming” readings not only increased reliability, but also allowed assessment to be done by experts and non-experts to take place both outside and within the context of the classroom (e.g., for program placement and exit).

Edward White, in "An Apologia for the Timed Imprompu Essay Test," argues for the appropriateness of the timed essay in some situations, but notes its limitations. He points out that the timed essay “restricts the world of the student, who must write under time pressure to someone else’s topic and scoring criteria”. While the timed essay directly measures writing, it can be argued that the writing it measures is somewhat narrowly defined.

In fact, White acknowledges that the timed essay “does define writing as first-draft writing” (36). This definition stands in contrast to a more complex, cognitive view of writing that involves the interaction of a number of sub- processes, such as planning and revising (Cho 166), and ignores the current view of writing as a social process. As such, White concedes that timed essaytest conditions, which do not allow for collaboration, preparation, or real revision, are inauthentic.

It could, however, be argued that timed essays are, in fact, authentic, given that many occasions of student academic writing are instances of timed, “first draft” writing (namely, in-class essay exams in courses across the curriculum).

But authenticity of writing assessment refers to how well the assessment matches the writing tasks we are preparing students to do beyond the test—any test. It seems to me that in teaching writing, we are teaching students how to go beyond the first draft, and it is this that we should be assessing.


Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2007 75, Janine Graziano-King.

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