Grading Essays: A Strategy that Reflects Writing as a Process

Writing is a process.  It is recursive.  No piece of writing is ever "final."  Something can always be better.  I often feel this way whenever I read back over my own old essays and inevitably find a sentence that could be better, a paragraph that could be stronger, or a word that could be more precise.  Our very grading system forces us to assign numbered grades  to writing, which assumes that a final product can be both finished and also perfect.  However, this grading system is antithetical to the very nature of writing which is never finished and never perfect.  So the question is-- how do we assess writing as a process?  How do we grade an essay on a scale of 0-100 while simultaneously allowing "room" for the writing to grow and change?    

I don't necessarily have the one single answer to this question, but I have developed an essay grading philosophy that marries the reality of the U.S. grading system (based on a numerical scale out of 100) while simultaneously reflecting writing as a process.  This system has also helped to motivate my students to revise their writing and focus on learning rather than just making a grade.  Here's how it works:

1.  Students turn in a "final" draft of an essay on a specified due date.

I use the term "final" in quotation marks because this draft is not necessarily the last draft.  This draft of the essay is the one I will grade against a rubric of targeted writing skills, and it is the essay version students turn in after taking an essay through the entire writing process over an extended period of time.  With this submission, I rate the essay with the rubric based on the quality and execution of the specific writing skills targeted for the specific assignment.  Before this essay submission, I will have seen each students' essay in process at least three times.  By the time they turn it in, I will recognize it and be familiar with their specific arguments.

2.  I grade the essay with the rubric and assign a numerical score out of 100.

As stated previously, I will grade the essay using the rubric and assign it an initial grade out of 100.  However, this is not the end of the writing process or grading process.  This initial score serves as a motivator for students because it allows students to see how their work is meeting the standards (or not), and it also allows them to measure the impact of this essay score on their overall average in the class.  This initial score also shocks some students into reality and pushes them to work harder on the specific writing assignment.

3.  Students revise/edit/rewrite the essay for points BACK!

At this point, students are instructed to revise/edit/rewrite their essays by an assigned date (usually two weeks later) in order to receive HALF THE POINTS BACK TO 100.  This means that if a student initially scored a 70 on the essay, he/she has the potential to earn a maximum score of an 85 on the essay.  If a student scored a 90 on the first submission, that student has the potential to earn up to a 95 on the essay, and so on.  If a student scored a 99 or 100 on the essay, the student has the potential to earn bonus points on the essay grade.  

This resubmission is not mandatory for all students but is mandatory for some students.  Here are the resubmission guidelines I give my students:

  • If you scored a 81-100 or higher, an essay resubmission is optional but encouraged.  
  • If you scored a 71-80, an essay resubmission is mandatory but a tutorial is optional
  • If you scored a 70 or lower, an essay resubmission is mandatory and a tutorial or visit to the writing center is required.
  • Failure to comply with these guidelines will result in NO CHANGE to the initial score, and parents will be notified about the failure to raise the score.

You can alter these particular resubmission requirements as best fits your group of students. In schools where I've had less students, I was able to require tutorials for students who scored less than an 85, but with my current number of students in a school without a writing center, I only have enough time to schedule tutorials for students who scored below a 70.  

It's important to note that students do not just receive points back automatically.  They have to work for these points.  When I eventually assess the essay a second time, I will grade it for the amount of effort the student put into making changes.  This means that the essay may still contain mistakes or may still need further revision and editing, but the student will still receive credit for making an honest attempt to improve the essay.  In order to receive the MAXIMUM points back, students must follow the resubmission guidelines as follows:

  • Any targeted writing skill where the essay lost points on the rubric must be addressed through revision/editing/rewriting.
  • Simply editing the essay for grammar will not qualify the essay for points back. The essay must account for all points lost, and this might involve substantially rewriting portions of the essay, or completely rewriting the entire essay.  
  • If you choose to rewrite the entire essay, please write a note to the teacher explaining why you started over and attach this note to your essay resubmission.
  • ALL changes to the essay MUST be either highlighted or annotated with Track Changes on Microsoft Word.  You must turn in the initial essay and rubric (with teacher comments and annotations) along with the essay resubmission.  If you fail to turn in the original essay and rubric with the resubmission, you will receive no extra points, and your initial score will stand.

4.  I assess essay resubmissions for effort of revisions.

The sound of assessing student essays a second time can seem quite daunting.  The key to making this resubmission process a success is to enforce that students highlight all changes and/or use track changes.  Having a highlighted/tracked copy of the essay will help you assess the effort of revision.  The way I do this is I place the two essays (the original and the newly revised copy) side-by-side, and I begin to compare them.  I also look at the original rubric and where I deducted points.  If I see the student lost points for the thesis statement, I expect to see a newly revised thesis statement, and it should be highlighted.  If the student lost points for quality of textual evidence in a given paragraph, I expect to see new quotations selected for that paragraph, and they should be highlighted.  I'm also checking that the updates to the essay are better than the original version-- they may not still be "perfect," but I expect to see improvement.

If a student has put in the effort to make quality improvements to the essay, then I will grant the student half the points back.  If the student has only done about half of the needed revisions and changes, then I will give partial points back.  If a student has only edited the essay for a few grammar mistakes and not addressed all aspects of the rubric where points were lost, then I might only give the student one or two points back on the score.  This part of the grading process is entirely subjective, but you should have a general idea of the effort they put into the essay by looking over the changes.

After I have reassessed the essay a second time, I write the new score on the original rubric, circle it, and that is the grade that goes into the gradebook.  One of the reasons why I like this system is that it holds students accountable for revisions, and we all know that there are some high school students that turn in a first draft of an essay as the final draft.  This process holds those students accountable for revisiting the essay in order to practice the targeted writing skills being assessed. But it's also a fair system in that it anchors the grades relative to the work produced, meaning that a student who initially scored a failing grade won't be able to make the same final grade as a student who initially scored an A-- but both students have the chance to raise their scores and raise their overall averages for the class.

I found this grading system especially useful when I was teaching at a STEM magnet school in Brooklyn where my students were not very good writers.  Their strong subjects were science and math, not English.  It really became necessary to allow ample room for revision and learning while at the same time creating a grading system that reflected their growth and improvement.  I had 175 students at the time, and the majority of them resubmitted essays.  The quality of their revisions varied greatly, but it was a system that helped focus students on growth rather than perfection.

I hope this grading system gives you some new ideas for how to assess writing as a process.  I would love to hear your feedback and comments about this idea!  Leave a comment below and share your ideas with us!

If you would like to try out this method, I have included the handout of guidelines that I give my students for essay resubmissions.  Click on the image below to download a copy of this file.

Meredith is the founder and creator of and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.