Dr. Tom McCann 10 rules for quality "Authentic" writing assessments

Northern Illinois University Associate professor of English, Tom McCann, gave a wonderful “Administrator’s Academy” at Elmhurst College in March 2006 in which he outlined the basics of “authentic” writing assessments. (With the late Dr. Larry Johannessen and others, he has authored 2010’s The Dynamics of Writing Instruction: A Structured Process Approach for the Composition Teacher in the Middle and High School, a book I hope to one day read.)


In his presentation, McCann gave ten rules for quality authentic writing assessments:

  • Base the assignments in “real-life” problems
  • Make them multi-valent tasks, rich in opportunities and processes for assessment 
  • Offer explicit criteria and expectations for scoring
  • Make a culminating product that demands a solution to the problem
  • Use informal formative assessments during process; let results inform revisions and adjustments
  • Offer opportunities for kids to play to strengths
  • “Welcome the unknown”– don’t narrowly prescribe responses
  • Measure student progress toward target outcomes
  • Work with colleagues to make them guaranteed valid and reliable
  • Make students self-reflect and set goals for themselves; they thereby contribute to their own development

English teachers are supposed to foster authentic, complex thinking. It thus makes sense that our assessments require complex, authentic thinking to complete. Thank goodness for the English evangelists like Tom who lay it out there so well.

But Tom McCann’s most challenging and trenchant piece of advice for English teachers regarding their writing assessments might be: Take it yourself if you give it.
I do so when I can, but most of my colleagues do not. Is that because they are too afraid, or too busy? I think the latter. But whenever I can–given my own time constraints–I do so, and the current multi-structural narrative assignment is an authentic assessment that involves the student in creating a multi-genre presentation of a story from his/her life in which s/he learns something important. Important to me is that it calls on the student to employ some sort of digital media, another sort of creative/complex thinking.
I did so myself in a wiki page (am still editing it) for that assignment, and find, true to McCann’s advice, that I know better what my students will be going through, and thus am better equipped to give them advice. (Your feedback is welcome.)
If you are an teacher or a boss reading this wikiness post, I make this challenge to you:  whatever test/quiz/assessment/project you give your student/worker, be sure to take it yourself first.  It’s a sine qua non of being an authentic educator/supervisor. 

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