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State Assessments — Unpacking the Writing Prompts

By Mary Blow on March 29, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

When I was unpacking the Common Core State Standards to identify the skills being learned and the student outcomes, it occurred to me that the cognitive process that I was using was the same used to identify the tasks in a state test short answer or essay prompt. I decided to teach my students how to unpack a prompt in the same manner that I unpacked the standards.


Why Unpack the Prompt?

Many state test writing prompts contain multiple tasks. At the middle school level, short answer and extended responses have encompassed up to four tasks. There is nothing more frustrating than grading a state test and discovering that a student did a fabulous job of responding to three tasks, but overlooked one. This could result in a failing score for the writing portion of the test, which is not a true measure of a student’s writing ability.

In order to get my students invested in analyzing prompts, I explained that test-taking is a life skill and connected it to the college and career component of the Common Core. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, and postal workers must past a test or tests of some form to get a license or job. In a few years, my students will have to pass various tests: the ACT, the SAT, and the NYS driver’s permit test. Okay, throwing in the driver’s license test isn’t fair, but it is motivating. I challenge you to find a teen who doesn’t want to pass the driver’s license test.

Checklists allow students to evaluate their own writing. I can’t answer student questions while proctoring a test, so they must be able to do this. Now, when my students are confronted with a writing prompt, either teacher- or state-created, they unpack the prompt and create a checklist as seen to the right. Sometimes the prompt, like the NYSED extended response question, provides a bulleted list. If this is the case, I instruct them to turn the bullets into check boxes, to create a checklist. If a bulleted task list is not provided, they make their own.



Unpacking a Prompt

After reading the prompt, students highlight "who," "what," "where," "when," "why," and "how." Some prompts have more than one of these words; some don’t have any. If your students struggle with this, put it in chart form as shown at the right.  The visual helps to sort the information, so the students see a pattern. Next, circle key words that identify the purpose for writing, such as "explain," "describe," "compare," "contrast," "identify," "persuade," "define," "defend," "justify," "predict," or "summarize." Notice that these are verbs. I point this out to my students. Last we underline the topics or phrases that accompany each writing purpose. There are times when one writing purpose encompasses two tasks. These tasks are often the ones a student overlooks. This process teaches them to look for more than one task.

Because of copyright restrictions, I could not use a NYSED assessment prompt to model the process, so I used comparable passages and an essay prompt that I created based on two passages in the March 12, 2012, issue of Scope magazine. Feel free to access the text passages and other digital resources that complement this lesson on Scope's companion Web site The Dust Bowl: The Land, the People. The nonfiction article “Imagine” is paired with an excerpt, “Hope,” from Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. Download the "Dust Bowl Extended Response" handout that I created as part of my state test review. The image illustrates how we identified the information in the prompt and created a checklist.


State Test Prep Resources

For more on preparing students for state assessments, see some of my other posts on the topic:

How do you prepare your students for state assessments?

Comments (3)

When we unpack prompts, we circle the audience, underline the topic, and box in key words.
An example of a 3rd grade prompt might be:

DESCRIBE the TRAITS of a your favorite book character to your best friend. Be sure to include details that support WHY it is your favorite character, what things they DO and SAY to support a unified description.

After reading the prompt, they must restate them on three lines below.

Topic: Describe the character of your favorite book
Audience: Your best friend

From here, they make a CIRCLE MAP for a brainstorm of their topic.

After that, they take the brainstorm and sort it into a tree map, which is a plan for the beginning, middle, and end of their story.

The tree map is used as a check list that keeps the writer on task in a sequential manner.

Our kids are writing stronger than ever now. We have used this sort of process at all grade levels, district wide and have made leaps and bounds in achieving great writing!

Dear Anonymous 4/4/12

I am glad the checklist is useful. Best of luck on your state assessment! ~Mary

Very useful information! I intend to adopt the checklist into my weekly lesson plans for the upcoming year.

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