In February 2013, Tennessee eighth-graders taking the TCAP Writing Assessment online read two articles about exploration and responded to the following prompt: “Write an expository essay comparing and contrasting how reasons for colonization have changed from settling America to attempting to settle space. […] Draw evidence from the passages to support your analysis.”

This assignment is a far cry from the previous year’s pencil-and-paper prompt: “Write an essay that tells about your favorite celebration. Explain why this is your favorite celebration.”

What changed, and why?

First, note that in 2013 students had to read two complex informational texts, known as stimulus passages, before writing.  Second, instead of writing about personal experiences, students now had to draw evidence from texts to support their ideas.  Using facts and details from the passages, students simulated the research process to craft convincing and nuanced explanations. Third, students typed their essays on computers.

This type of writing to sources is at the heart of college- and career-readiness. Whether a student majors in English, goes on to start a business, or apprentices to become a master plumber, he will need the same writing skills: the ability to comprehend challenging text (a modernist novel, a stock report, a technical manual), draw information from it, and use digital devices to synthesize that information into a piece of writing that accomplishes his purpose—making an academic argument, persuading shareholders, or advertising his services.

The implementation of new Common Core State Standards gave us this opportunity to take writing in Tennessee to the next level by revising the Writing Assessment. While explaining your favorite holiday may be fun, writing with textual support is far more rigorous and relevant. These changes also reflect the three key instructional shifts of Tennessee’s Common Core State Standards. And taking the Writing Assessment on computers reinforces the computer skills students will need to succeed in the 21st century workplace.

The results from the 2013 Writing Assessment provide a fascinating window into Tennessee students’ readiness for college- and career-level writing. Thanks to a four-part scoring rubric, we can dive into data about specific areas of strength and weakness. While our students SCOREd relatively well on conventions (the rubric trait that measures grammar, punctuation, and spelling), the lowest trait was support/elaboration, which measures their ability to use evidence and details from the text. Only 1.5% of eighth-graders received the highest SCORE of 4 on Support/Elaboration (for more detail on the data, go here). This just happens to be the major skill required for success on the revised Writing Assessment.

This data provides a clear signal to educators, students, and parents: we have a lot of work to do. Knowing where their students excel and struggle informs teachers’ instruction. We now know that we need to have a laser-like focus on helping students develop their writing with textual evidence.

For the upcoming February 2014 Writing Assessment—the last year of this assessment before PARCC tests, which incorporate writing at all grades—we will make a few more changes to more closely align it with PARCC. The transformation of the TCAP Writing Assessment is an example of how the Common Core is bringing a new sense of rigor to instruction. And by taking the revised writing test for two years leading up to PARCC, our students and teachers have time to learn, make data-informed adjustments, and gain new skills. Most importantly, by gaining experience with this crucial type of writing, our students will take another step towards college- and career-readiness—and that would be something truly worth celebrating in writing.