By Sara DeMartino

Institute for Learning

As schools are ramping up for testing season, we get a lot of questions about writing instruction and what it should look like to support students to be successful on state tests. These questions are asked with the best intentions—as educators, we always want our students to be successful and feel prepared going into what is frequently a stressful testing situation. Our suggestion to teachers is to teach test writing as a genre that students use for the specific purpose of taking the state test. In this article, I share why we want to focus on only teaching test writing as a genre and provide one possible sequence of work to begin that process.

Why Test Writing as a Genre?

The reason why we push for test writing to be taught as a genre is that when it’s not, when it becomes the way students are always asked to write, or when it’s looked at and taught as the formula that will be broken, test writing becomes the only writing that students experience across their K-12 education. Only learning to write to the test is also an equity issue because Black and Brown students and students living in poverty are disproportionately the receivers of instruction driven by the desire to prepare students for the state test (Booher-Jennings, 2005; Davis & Vehabovic, 2017; Dooley & Assaf, 2009; Valenzuela, 2000) and we know that test writing (and curriculum driven by test preparation in general) doesn’t adequately prepare students for the writing demands they will experience in college or in their chosen careers. I had an opportunity to follow a group of students from the beginning of their 9th grade year in high school until they graduated. During this time, I unexpectedly found an interesting case of what happens when test writing becomes the scaffold that never gets removed (whether intentionally or not).

Teachers at this urban high school were consistent about what an academic piece of writing looked like, stating in rubrics and writing prompts that writing should have an introduction, three pieces of evidence or 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion (the common five-paragraph formula that many state tests require). This expectation stayed consistent across assignments and across students’ four years in high school. By the end of the 12th grade, students were proficient at the formula and convinced that this type of writing would lead to success in their college classrooms, with one student saying that he recognized that, “…an essay should be five paragraphs…that is good for school.” However, students’ use of five-paragraph essays often frustrates college professors because they see that format as preventing the development of extended and meaningful thinking (Dennihy, 2015; Tremmel, 2011) and students often need to receive remediation in writing, when they get to college, to gain the knowledge and skills that weren’t part of the instruction in high school.

What Could Teaching the Genre of Test Writing Look Like?

When we teach test writing as a genre, it helps students to see that, as with any other type of writing, there is a time, a place, and an audience for it to be used. Focusing on teaching test writing as a genre also frees up the instructional time to go deeply into other genres of writing, allowing teachers to help students develop a repertoire of writing tools that they can draw on as they become more proficient and confident writers. So, what does it look like to teach test writing as a genre? One sequence of work is outlined below. Don’t spend the entire school year on teaching the genre; work with students on it a few weeks before they are expected to take the test.

Audience and Voice

An unintended consequence of focusing on test writing year-round, is stifling student voice. When we teach students to only write for the test, we teach them that their audience is always the person scoring their essay.

A coach from Dallas Independent School District noted, “We don’t know, our kids might write for…a magazine one day. But if we tell them no, do you know who will be scoring your paper? And most of the time they always say, ‘It’s an old white woman,’ and you need [to stick to the prompt]…We need to give students back their voice and not stifle it.”

    • Begin by asking students what they already know about the writing that’s required of them on the state test. Students, especially those in middle and high school, will probably have a lot to say about what testing writing looks like because they’ve been engaged in learning about it since elementary school.
        • You might ask what makes test writing similar and what makes it different from other types of writing they’ve done and types of writing they’ve read.
        • You also might ask about audience—who is this writing really for?
        • Also consider asking about the purpose of test writing—what is it meant to do? When should this type of writing be used?
    • Next, have students look at some sample essays and the essay prompts. These could be a range of essays that would be scored high performing and essays that need improvement. Have students work in small groups of no more than 2 or 3 students in a group to look at the essays and talk about a few questions:
        • Which essays respond to the prompt well?
        • What makes those responses good? Describe the essays.
        • Which essays need improvement?
        • What would you suggest to improve the essay?
    • Have students share their thinking about the essays with the class and discuss disagreements. Work together to compile students’ thinking into a chart that shows the characteristics of good test writing. Then share the rubric used to assess essays with the class and talk with students about how that rubric maps on to the characteristics of test writing that they generated. Sharing the rubric after the class discussion prevents students from getting mired in solely thinking about that rubric as they look at the sample essay and allows students to draw on what they know about writing and to put that in their own words.
    • Consider having the class work together to revise the essay that students think needs improvement. You might do this by first asking pairs to work on the revision together, then sharing their revised essay with the class, talking through their thinking during the revision process, and having other students add on to that revision or ask questions. You might also have the class work through the revision process together, talking about the decisions of what to revise and why.
    • Finally, have students work on drafting their own essay. The writing process (and this should be a process) might start with students talking about what they understand the prompt to ask of them, and then move to students creating a first draft, getting some content-based feedback from their peers, and then having a chance to make some revision decisions based on that feedback. Once students have engaged in revision, you could take them through a second round of feedback or ask students to reflect on where they are as writers using a prompt such as:
        • How do you think your writing reflects the characteristics of test writing?
        • What did you do well?
        • What do you think you still need to work on?

Prompts such as the ones above allow students to call out their own strengths and set some goals for what they would like to work on as a writer. The reflection is something that students should come back to as they continue to draft essays (in the testing genre or any genre) to take stock of their own progress.

I want to stress that the work on test writing should be work done with students a few weeks before they are expected to take the test—that will keep the expectations of what their writing should be for the state test at the front of their minds. When we teach the testing genre as the standard year-round, it becomes the standard for writing rather than one type of writing that is used for a specific purpose. If we want our students to become flexible and proficient writers that make decisions about audience and purpose (and students can and should be asked to do that), then we need to make sure that our instruction equips them with the writing tools and agency to do so.


Booher-Jennings, J. (2005). Below the bubble: “Educational triage” and the Texas accountability system. American Educational Research Journal, 42(2), 231–268.

Davis, D. S., & Vehabovic, N. (2017). The dangers of test preparation: What students learn (and don’t learn) about reading comprehension from test‐centric literacy instruction. The Reading Teacher71(5), 579-588.

Dennihy, M. (2015). “Forget what you learned in high school!”: Bridging the space between high school and college. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 43(2), 156.

Dooley, C.M., & Assaf, L.C. (2009). Contexts matter: Two teachers’ language arts instruction in this high-stakes era. Journal of Literacy Research, 41(3), 354–391.     

Tremmel, M. (2011). What to make of the five-paragraph theme: History of the genre and implications. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 39(1), 29.

Valenzuela, A. (2000). The significance of the TAAS test for Mexican immigrant and Mexican American adolescents: A case study. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 22(4), 524–539.