How To Improve Student Writing Scores on the State Test

State Test Essays_ 4 Mistakes Students Make.pngLike it or not, state tests for common core and other state standards are here to stay. And unfortunately, some of our instruction will be diverted to helping our students do well on them.

One area that is particularly troublesome for language arts teachers is that the writing portion is scored by a computer. How is it possible to take something as complex as grading an essay and reduce it to work that can be done by a machine? It’s very frustrating to have the countless hours that we spend grading reduced to something that can be done by a program.

How does the computer score the state tests? We don’t exactly know. However, there are a few things that we know the computer is looking for, and ways to help make those things visible.

So here are four things students MUST do in order to score well on the test and how you can help students prepare.


Many students are used to typing on a computer or device that automatically identifies, and in some cases corrects, errors. Those students who take the test on a computer or device need to be aware that there is no such feature on the test. And those who are writing by hand need to be looking for the errors that they made in the mad dash to finish an essay. Unlike a human grader, the computer may not recognize a misspelled word as what it is. However, it will definitely catch run-ons and fragments.

How to teach it: Emphasize that students need to allocate time to proofread their work. Emphasize it as a skill with every assignment. For example, if you give time for students to write a paragraph as an exit slip, instruct them to use the last minute or two before the bell rings to check over their work. We want proofreading to become something that students automatically do.

As the school year progresses, keep track of the errors that students are most likely to make as you see them in writing. I also have a bundle that addresses the most common errors students are likely to make in writing in fun comics and activities.

Have a thesis at the end of the introduction.

Yes, it’s formulaic and yes, there are other places you can put it. However, this is the best place to put your thesis if someone (or in this case something) is looking for it. Also, a thesis shouldn’t be a question like: “Should museums charge admission?” or a statement like: “Read below to find out  whether or not museum admission should be free.” A thesis statement must clearly state a position on an issue which will then be supported with evidence.

How to teach it: Thesis statements are part of regular instruction already, but emphasize what it should look like and where to put it. You can also have students practice thesis statements without writing an entire paper. Have them read an article or two and craft a thesis statement that they would use in a paper on this topic. Collect them on the way out and you’ll have a good idea in a couple of minutes how well they can write one.

Adding citations.

Students should be quoting from the passages. However, because there is more than one passage, they need to identify which passage their quotes come from. According to samples from past tests, it seems like you can either identify the passage by the author (“Robert Smith says …”) or by the passage (“In Passage 1 it says …”). Direct quotes are good – the computer will recognize that quotes are being used – but you shouldn’t quote too much. However, identifying the passage is critical as well.

How to teach it: First off, make sure students aren’t just writing an opinion piece that doesn’t use facts at all, which I suspect is a reason many students don’t score well.

Make sure you are giving students more than one passage to use as sources for assignments. For example, a lot of teachers use articles of the week regularly. Instead of giving students one article, give them two ask them to pull facts from both. When you discuss the article, have them identify the passage as they give their facts.

Address counterarguments.

The writing prompts for the state test ask students to address counterarguments to their claims. For years I taught 5 paragraph essays in which students stated three reasons to support an opinion, but weren’t asked to address the other side. Because of that, students might be inclined to neglect that they have to address what the other side would say. I would guess that this is the main reason that students don’t score well on the test is that they neglect this task, either because they haven’t been asked to do it, or because they don’t read the directions and know they should do it.

How to teach it: Throughout the year have students engage in persuasive tasks in which they must consider the other side and argue against that opinion. For example, we read two articles about Iowa schools that teach gun safety as part of physical education – one for and one against. Students had to take a side, but they also had to choose a point from the other side to dispute. You can also ask questions like: “What might the other side say? And why might they feel that way?” during class discussions in order to get students thinking about other points of view.

A Handy State Test Writing Visual!

Common Core Writing Handout

I created this handout as a visual for students as they prepare for the test. It has all of the tips I addressed above as well as some other general suggestions. If you’d like a free copy of this handout, click below. You’ll also be added to my email list and get other great ELA tips delivered right to your inbox.

Click here for your free lesson on _you call that a poem__

It’s easy to think that if we are doing test prep we aren’t teaching anything else. But in fact the skills that students need to do well on the writing section – writing thesis statements, using facts and citing them appropratiely- are skills that students need to have no matter what they write. True, we have to outwit the computer that grades these essay a little bit. But we only need to modify our instruction a little bit to sharpen these skills for the task. And in the end that’s what good instruction is all about – knowing how to respond appropriately to whatever task you’re given.

Here are some other blog posts on writing you might enjoy:

Writing Rubrics That Give You Back Your Weekends

Building Better Topic Sentences

Mini Timed Writings: Getting Students to Write More Without More Grading

A Workshop Approach to Essay Planning

Learning should be fun! Check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store for fun resources like the ones you see below.


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