Every Standardized Writing Prompt

In just about every quarterly assessment and every state assessment, my students are asked to do a writing prompt where they advocate for something involving their own education. It sounds like a great idea. “Write a letter to your principal about whether or not you should have school uniforms” or “Write to the district office about whether students should be required to go to PE.”

But it’s a joke.

The very test itself is evidence that student voice doesn’t matter. False authenticity, where one advocates to a rubric rather than a true audience, becomes a bold reminder to students that they have no voice. Writing make-believe letters to people who will never read them teaches students a subtle lesson that advocacy is an act of make believe.

If you want to grade student writing, let them choose a topic. Give them creative writing prompts. Let them be fantastical or logical. Use the six traits and the little boxes and all of make up the score if you need to. Give them some freedom and see where it goes. Or don't give them writing assessments at all and simply assess their writing instead.

But please don’t teach them that pseudo-advocacy is what the adult world expects of them.

John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. My daughter got very cross when she discovered that the principal wasn't really going to make them come to school on Saturday, or abolish lunchtime or whatever the writing task was. Her words were, "the teachers lied to us just to get us to do good writing.".

    On the other hand, I've heard of some great projects where a class is concerned about an issue, whether requesting council to build a footpath, or even a class who went to a anti war demonstration. One where kinder children, after having a story in the paper read to them, were concerned about people stealing trolleys and dumping them. The children decided to make posters to tell people to stop stealing trolleys, and to write a letter to the paper. I think they made front page. That's authentic use of text, and led by the children.

    1. I love that contrast of authenticity and artificiality.

  2. Dragon skin boots. Nice one, John.

  3. Amen.

    I also hate the "tell me a once prompt" on state exams. Students either lie about the experience or tell the truth to some faceless bureaucrat. Maybe it's the introvert or libertarian in me, but someone hired by the state to score these tests has no right to read any personal revelations.

    I don't ask for the personal narratives in a class until I've established a solid rapport with most of the class.

    1. Absolutely true. The libertarian in me gets angry at those as well.

  4. Very well stated, and I like the snake skin boots reference.

  5. I am a huge fan of "Write a letter" prompts. But I also give them one more thing...an envelope or access to email. No kid should ever write a letter and not send it. When we "write a letter to the President" they hand it to me in the envelope.

    What I have found makes these assignments most powerful, is not the writing and sending, but receiving a response back. We get to compare the responses, and ultimately the responses that are personal and not robo written are always to kids who spent the most time editing and revising, and to kids who took the time to write with passion.

    I am always amazed at companies and gov't departments that take the time to have someone high up (or at least a representative who signs their boss' signature) respond with a personal message to my kids. And never surprised that the companies that the kids worship the most, give the kids nothing but a form letter. I have had kids who stopped purchasing a product just based on the lame response of the company.

    1. Yes! That's exactly my point. If they're going to write a letter, make sure and send it. I have them write letters and send them to relatives, to politicians, to government agencies, to companies. This was more often the case in social studies, but I still do that.

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