Assessing Grammar and Language Convention Skills

New guidance explains how to assess writing skills through embedded-error passages and multiple-choice items

Question: What is the best way to assess student grammar and convention skills? (Since we are the assessment team, we thought we would give you some multiple-choice answer options to consider.

A. reviewing actual student writing for students’ use of grammar and conventions
B. using embedded-error passages and associated items to assess specific grammar and convention skills
C. requiring students to explain why they corrected an error in grammar or conventions in a specific way
D. ignoring grammar and conventions skills altogether, hoping students learn from your modeling good writing

The correct answer to this silly little multiple-choice question is option A. The most authentic way to see if a student has mastery of the rules of English usage and conventions is to review the use of those skills in a piece of writing. There is no question that a teacher gets the best understanding of how a student is using his or her language by reviewing actual student work. The SAP-developed Scoring Rubric for Text-Based Writing Prompts serves as an example of a rubric that demonstrates expectations that students attend to grammar and conventions when writing (see row 5).

However, we know that it is not always possible in education to spend the time required to analyze student work for language skills, or, in the case of summative assessment, those pieces of writing aren’t available to teachers.

While we still firmly believe that it is best to assess student mastery of grammar and conventions by reviewing actual writing, we realize another option is needed: a way to assess these skills that does not require a constructed response and scoring rubric. To address this issue, we turned to the CCSSO Criteria for Procuring and Evaluating High-Quality Assessments, a document that outlines the expectations of high-quality summative assessments. There we found significant guidance on best practices for assessing grammar and convention skills in a way that mirrors the way students would use those skills in the real world—in college and their chosen careers. The CCSSO Criteria state:

“Language is assessed within writing assessments as part of the scoring rubric, or it is assessed with test items that specifically address language skills. Language assessments reflect requirements for college and career readiness by

  • Mirroring real-world activities (e.g., actual editing or revision, actual writing); and
  • Focusing on common student errors and those conventions most important for readiness.”

After considering the guidance, consulting with the experts, and reviewing different assessments to see grammar and conventions assessed well, we developed Assessing Language Standards (Grammar and Conventions) for College and Career Readiness. This document provides:

  • An outline of the expectations of high-quality grammar and conventions items
  • Guidance for crafting embedded-error passages
  • Sample passages and items for each grade (3-11).

The intent of the document is to help teachers and assessment developers recognize the variety of ways that these skills can be assessed in both the classroom and large-scale assessments.

Teachers can use this resource in several ways. The sample embedded-error passages and items can be used as classroom assessments. Looking across the grades, teachers can see how the skills evolve as students progress through the grades. Additionally, the introductory text provides guidance for teachers and assessment developers interested in creating their own high-quality embedded error passages and items.

What’s more, the entire document is an excellent tool for coaches to use to support professional development around the grammar and convention standards. It can be used as a source of conversation in PLCs, helping to guide teachers as they work their way through the grammar and conventions standards.

So, the next time you are looking for a way to assess grammar and conventions skills, knowing that grading student essays may not be an option all the time, consider the exemplar language items in the Assessing Language Standards (Grammar and Conventions) for College and Career Readiness document. Below is a 6th grade excerpt from one of the sample passages and items included in that document.

Although Yellowstone was the first park established, it was not the last. There are now over 400 national parks in the United States. (4) Each park features beutiful landscapes and fasinating wildlife, all protected by the National Park Service. The best way for us to appreciate the amazing national parks is visit them (5) myself.

For the sentence labeled 5, which pronoun correctly completes the sentence

A. myself

B. yourself

C. yourselves

D. ourselves

Our hope is that passages and items like this can provide you with the guidance necessary to find alternate ways to assess your students’ skills with grammar and conventions.

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About the Author: Laura Hansen supports Student Achievement Partner’s literacy and assessment initiatives. Laura joined Student Achievement Partners after having served as Executive Director at ETS, where she was directly involved with many state testing programs. Prior to working in the testing industry, Laura was a classroom teacher in Texas for nine years, emphasizing reading strategies and best practices in her classroom. While in the classroom, Laura also worked as a scorer for the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a Lifetime Teacher Certificate with Reading Specialization for the state of Texas.

About the Author: Katie is a Literacy Assessment Specialist for Student Achievement Partners. She began her career as a Teach for America corps member, teaching middle school reading in rural Mississippi. She later moved on to teaching high school English in Illinois. While teaching high school English, her work revising the district's ELA curriculum led to a 24% jump in ACT writing scores across the district. Most recently, Katie worked for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt-Riverside. She started as a Content Development Specialist, working her way up to the role of Supervisor, managing the High School ELA team. She worked on assessments for district and state clients, as well as helped to run the development of assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Illinois.