Online Writing Assessment Across South Dakota

With approximately 40% of high-schoolers learning in 1:1 environments and statewide use of an online writing assessment program, South Dakota is taking important steps toward the digital future of education.  We connected with South Dakota Director of Assessment Gay Pickner to find out more.
Like so many states, South Dakota used to rely on hand-written annual writing tests taken in two grade levels.  Once the teachers received feedback on each student’s performance, the class had already moved on to the next teacher’s classroom.  The tests were good at providing an end-of-year snapshot, but the system was not set-up to generate results that teachers could use to guide instruction. This frustration of teachers drove South Dakota’s conversion to a writing assessment program that harnesses the power of automated scoring to facilitate more writing and more structured feedback.
After issuing an RFP with several vendor responses, South Dakota chose Pearson’s WriteToLearn program and purchased a state license for $10 per student. Teachers now issue three formative writing assessments in grades five, seven, and ten and get immediate, structured feedback to work directly with students to improve their writing—before they move to the next grade level.
South Dakota’s teachers have reported that the program is a big improvement over the former summative-only paper and pencil tests, and every year more teachers utilize the program. The $10 per student rate makes it an attractive choice for schools that want students to write more without adding unrealistic grading demands to teachers’ plates.   Even teachers outside of the mandated three grade levels have purchased the program, and many summer school teachers have found that it is a useful tool for targeting writing over the summer months.
In our conversation, Gay mentioned that teacher professional development is an important part of the success of the program. Teachers were trained up front with help from the state’s educational service agencies, and the dedicated Program Manager attends on-going training and conducts webinars about the program’s uses, including ways in which teachers can customize the program to meet their own needs and access Pearson’s growing library of writing prompts and tools.  Gay also mentioned that coordination with the state’s technology standards helped eliminate potential obstacles and ensure student readiness, such as fifth graders that were proficient with typing.
We’re excited to hear about states like South Dakota where formative assessment supports writing to learn.  Schools and districts that combine instructional and evaluative applications simultaneously (with products like ASSISTments, i-Ready, and Compass/NWEA as well as WriteToLearn) will be positioned to leverage the shift to online assessments.
We hope to see South Dakota and others continue to extend the possibilities of automated scoring to explore ways to better coordinate formative and summative assessments to contribute to deeper learning.

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