College students are expected to demonstrate critical thinking in their compositions, by insightfully analyzing and evaluating information, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and by contributing ideas, arguments, and solutions of their own.
Much of secondary-school writing instruction, however, emphasizes formulas and surface features over disciplined inquiry and rigorous analysis. Standardized testing in particular tends to focus secondary school writing instruction on form at the expense of content. As a result, many students come to believe that correct form and mechanics, more than substance, constitute good writing.
The Key to College Success
This misconception can be a major impediment to success for new college students. As Marlink and Wahleithner write, “By privileging form over an exploration of ideas and analysis, the formulaic approach to writing stands in direct opposition to the type of writing expected in the post-secondary world.” In higher education, writing is understood as more than a means for demonstrating command of form and language: it is itself a method of learning, an occasion for complex problem-solving, a tool for discovering and refining one’s own thinking, and for contributing meaningfully to conversations within a discourse community. As Dolores Perin notes, “College instructors routinely assign writing not for the purpose of teaching writing skills, but to promote students’ development of knowledge and ideas.” 
Condon and Kelly-Riley identify with some precision the form critical thinking takes in college-level writing:
Identification of a problem or issue.
Establishment of a clear perspective on the issue
Recognition of alternative perspectives
Location of the issue within an appropriate context
Identification and evaluation of evidence
Recognition of fundamental assumptions implicit or stated by the representation of an issue
Assessment of implications and potential conclusions.
Students benefit from understanding prior to beginning their college careers that academic writing will be a primary means for demonstrating not only their language skills and mastery of form, but also the depth of their knowledge and the quality of their thinking. Pre-college writing instruction, therefore, should equip them with this understanding.
If students are to become critical thinkers, they must be given writing assignments that encourage them to develop and demonstrate those skills. That’s why it’s so important that they get the chance to work on authentic, extended, research-supported academic essays.
In the 1980s, a highly influential new model of writing arose from researchers Linda Flower and John R. Hayes. It described the process of composition in terms of cognitive functions: the mental processes by which writing decisions are made, ideas are translated into written language, long-term and working memory are engaged, etc.—in essence, all of the things that go on in a person’s head as they write.
In this “cognitive model,” writing competencies develop according to a natural progression as students mature. Individuals may progress at different rates, but the cognitive process is pretty much the same for everyone. Instruction therefore need not concern itself with differences in students’ identity or background; it need only focus on developing a collection of skills.
By the 1990s, the cognitive model of writing was shaping instruction across primary and secondary education, and it continues to be predominant in pre-college instruction today.
In higher education, however, the cognitive theory of writing has been challenged and supplemented by sociocultural theory. This theory accounts for the fact that, whatever cognitive processes are at work in the production of text, writing is always shaped by the particular social and cultural contexts in which it takes place. The writer is always situated within a discourse community, which has its own governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and behaving. Learning to write, then is largely a matter of getting socialized into particular discourse communities—such as the discourse community of the college classroom.
That’s not to say that cognitive functions aren’t still recognized and emphasized in college writing instruction, however. They’re still found in the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” for example, where they are identified as “skills and knowledge” (in contrast to “habits of mind”).
Specifically, the Framework identifies:
Writing process skills
Knowledge of conventions.
If these, according to research, are the cognitive competencies students need in order to be successful college writers, how. do pre-college instructors ensure that students get a chance to develop them before heading off to college?
The best way, in my view, is by making sure students have opportunities to work on composing authentic, extended, research-supported essays. This is the kind of writing that develops and demonstrates these competencies; not by coincidence, it is also the kind of writing students are asked to produce most often early in college.
Extended essay assignments provide a way to translate the high-level cognitive competencies identified in the readiness framework into specifics that can be demonstrated in student writing and evaluated by instructors. For example:
Writing Process Competences:Students successfully use planning, drafting, revising, and finalizing process strategies to compose their extended, research-supported academic essay.
Rhetorical Knowledge:As students compose an academic essay, their considerations and decisions are guided by a thoughtful understanding of the writing task, their purposes for writing, and their audiences. They use modes of expression and reasoning that are valued and persuasive within college academics.
Critical Thinking: Students demonstrate an ability to insightfully analyze and evaluate ideas, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and to contribute their own well-reasoned ideas, arguments, and perspectives in turn.
Knowledge of Conventions:Students understand that academic discourse communities expect texts to adhere to established conventions of form, style, and presentation. Their writing demonstrates an ability to adhere to the conventions associated with an extended research-supported academic essay, by exhibiting correct grammar, mechanics, and formatting; effective organization; and appropriate tone and style.
Research suggests that students must develop specific cognitive competencies to be successful writers in college. The best way to develop those competencies is to practice composing authentic academic essays. Pre-college writing instruction therefore should include opportunities for students to begin learning how to produce extended, research-supported compositions.
By this point, the college-readiness gap is well documented. The majority of students entering college are not ready for college-level work: nearly three quarters of 12th-graders fail to meet standards of academic proficiency; more than half of all students entering college need remedial coursework; almost half of all students who enter college fail to complete their degrees.
In the case of writing—our special concern here—less than 30 percent of 12th-graders write at a level considered “proficient,” according to The Nation’s Report Card.
The lack of college readiness is made all the more frustrating by the fact that we have a pretty good idea of what students need to know and be able to do if they’re going to succeed in college. Evidence-based frameworks for college readiness abound. There’s also a knowledge and skills framework for successful college writing.
It hasn’t been easy to translate these frameworks into practical, hands-on instruction (though, in the case of college-ready writing, I have given it my best effort: see the online resource I’ve developed, College-Ready Writing Essentials). Nevertheless, the necessary knowledge and skills have been identified, and that’s an important first step in addressing the college-readiness gap.
Aligning College Readiness Research with College Ready-Writing Research
It’s reasonable to wonder, however, how well the research on college-ready writing aligns with the research on college readiness in general. That is, does the guidance offered by the writing framework conform to the broader vision of college readiness proffered by the college readiness frameworks? This seems an especially appropriate question, given the importance of writing to overall college success.
To answer that question, I did a comparison of the two frameworks, a “crosswalk” to see where they might overlap, contradict, or complement each other.
For overall college readiness, I used the ConnectEd report, “College and Career Readiness: What Do We Mean?.” It combines a digest of some 12 college- and career-readiness frameworks with the perspectives of leading economists, educators, researchers, and policy organizations. The report provides a comprehensive, high-level description of knowledge, skills, and behaviors needed for success after high school.
Together, the “Framework for Success” and the “WPA Outcomes Statement” are intended to “help establish a continuum of valued practice from high school through to the college major.” After first-year composition, students are expected to be prepared to learn how to write in their disciplines.
Unsurprisingly, the two frameworks align well, though I note a comparative under-emphasis on metacognitive skills in the writing framework, as discussed below.
The frameworks in many cases use differing terms and categorizations to express the same or similar concepts. “Persistence,” for example, appears in the writing framework as a “habit of mind,” but in the college-readiness framework under “productive dispositions and behaviors.” For the purposes of the crosswalk, it’s useful to categorize elements of both frameworks in terms of cognitive, noncognitive, and metacognitive competencies.
I like “competencies” as a term that can encompass the “knowledge,” “skills,” “dispositions,” “behaviors,” “strategies,” and “habits of mind” found in the frameworks. In practice, these attributes often are inseparable from one another, especially in the writing domain: in the actual production of a successful academic essay, many of the abilities a writer must employ call upon intermingled knowledge, skills, and behaviors.
Cognitive competencies include the mental skills and knowledge employed in the production of a successful academic essay: for example, the ability to plan and research, produce a draft, and revise in response to feedback. The college-readiness framework refers to such competencies as “core academic knowledge and skills.”
The cognitive competencies found in the writing framework can be viewed as the “core knowledge and skills” that pertain to academic writing. They include “rhetorical knowledge,” “process skills,” “critical thinking,” and “knowledge of conventions.”
Noncognitive competencies are behaviors and dispositions needed for academic success. In education research, these often are enfolded within the category of “social and emotional learning” (SEL) skills, though that term is not used by either of these frameworks.
In general, the college-readiness framework identifies noncognitive competencies as “productive dispositions and behaviors,” while the writing framework includes them within “habits of mind.”
I feel confident in calling this group of competencies “noncognitive,” since many of them are identified as such in other studies. Nagaoka, et al., for example, identify five categories of noncognitive college-readiness factors: “academic behaviors,” “academic perseverance,” “social skills,” “learning strategies,” “academic mindset.”
These categories match many of the “productive dispositions and behaviors” and “habits of mind” found in the two frameworks.
Metacognitive competencies include the ability to reflect on oneself—e.g., one’s thinking, motivations, objectives, performance—and to recognize the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which one is operating, including the processes and systems that structure knowledge and agency within education. In the college-readiness framework, some metacognitive competencies are named as skills and behaviors.
The major metacognitive emphasis, however, is on the ability to “navigate” higher education, the world of work, and civic life.
The writing framework encourages students’ ability to examine and analyze their own writing processes, texts, and choices, but does not stress a broader awareness of the function of writing in academic, work, and civic realms. This appears to me a missed opportunity, since a strong metacognitive grasp of writing is of aid in each of these contexts.
The table below illustrates my alignment of the ConnectEd college-readiness framework with the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, using the cognitive, noncognitive, and metacognitivecompetencies categories.
What we gain from this exercise is an ability to see how college-ready writing competencies fit into the overall picture of college readiness.
One of the biggest takeaways, to my thinking, is how thoroughly we should be integrating noncognitive and metacognitive competencies into writing instruction.
Colleges and employers value good writing skills in part because they recognize that people who write well possess an array of high-level competencies that apply across many varieties of subject matter and types of projects.
What do these transferable skills look like?
In composing a successful extended, source-based academic essay, students:
Demonstrate that they understand a complex task and their purpose for working on it;
Recognize the needs and expectations of people who will evaluate their work;
Generate productive ideas that are well suited to a given task, audience, and purpose;
Demonstrate that they can successfully scope and plan a complex intellectual project;
Find relevant, credible information, analyze it, and make discerning use of it in their own work;
Identify and define a specific, relevant problem residing within a broad domain of information and debate;
Formulate a coherent response to a defined problem, based on their analysis of a range of information and perspectives;
Stake out a persuasive position on a debatable issue, and effectively support it with an argument grounded in evidence and logical reasoning;
Organize a collection of materials, information, and ideas into a coherent presentation;
Communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively;
Skillfully revise their work in response to feedback from others and their own self-critique;
Produce a polished final product.
An extended, research-supported academic essay provides an unmistakable demonstration of the author’s knowledge, the quality of their thinking, their capacity for executing a complex intellectual task, and their skill at communicating clearly and effectively. No wonder so many schools and employers want to see writing samples from their applicants.
Many of the best practices reflected in the Common Core State Standards and other standards frameworks do not make it into classroom instruction because they cannot be assessed via conventional standardized testing.
Student writing quality, in particular, suffers.
The frameworks typically, and rightly, emphasize authentic composition skills such as research, planning, and revision—skills essential to completing an authentic piece of academic writing. Conventional testing, however, asks students to demonstrate their knowledge of writing by answering multiple-choice questions, which have little ability to measure real composition skills or higher-level thinking.
Some tests do ask students to generate a timed, impromptu essay, based on a standardized prompt. But the writing students produce in response to these prompts bears little resemblance to authentic academic composition: for example, timed writing tests provide no opportunity for students to find and analyze credible sources, to strategize and plan a nuanced argument or presentation of ideas, or to refine their thinking and polish their work through revision.
In their examination of assessments from 20 states, Brown and Conley found that English tests “aligned poorly or not at all” with the higher order thinking skills required for entry-level college success. Standards frameworks may articulate essential writing skills, but the execution of many of those skills requires authentic educational contexts and extended time frames.
To the extent that teachers and schools are held accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests, they have incentive to prioritize the skills that are measured by the tests, and to neglect those that are not. Thus, even where standards frameworks do cover authentic and effective writing practices, these skills may not receive much attention in the classroom, because they’re not part of year-end accountability tests.
Student Writing Suffers
A large body of research documents the detrimental impact of high-stakes standardized tests on student learning, especially their tendency to narrow classroom curriculum to test-taking preparation. In the case of writing, as Applebee and Langer state, “high stakes tests are having a very direct and limiting effect on classroom emphasis. And given the dearth of writing required on most tests, this creates a powerful momentum away from the teaching of writing.”
While the tests purport to serve as a proxy for writing ability broadly conceived, they are not valid measures of authentic writing. The tests create a highly contrived context for writing that exists nowhere outside of testing. Since the writing students generate on the tests does not resemble the writing they’re required to produce in authentic contexts, the tests have low construct validity.
Standardized assessments tend to shift the focus of classroom writing instruction toward form rather than content, and toward product rather than process. This shift points away from research-verified best practices, and from the skilled writing that is needed for college and workplace success.
When teachers prepare students for standardized tests, writes Hillocks, “they are likely to mirror the worst features of the assessment, focusing on form, rewarding students for surface features and grammatical correctness—even though instructional literature indicates students need strategies for thinking about content far more than they need instruction in formal features of writing.”
According to Hassel and Giordano, the texts produced on conventional standardized tests, “almost never demonstrate a student’s ability in the most important skills sets, including knowledge of academic conventions, rhetorical knowledge, and process.”
A further concern about the impact of standardized tests on classroom instruction and learning stems from the automated scoring of test-taker essays. A piece of effective writing is intended to have an impact on its readers, but automated scoring systems don’t understand what they read and thus cannot register the rhetorical effect of a student’s work, even though this is one of the primary measures of its quality.
One leading researcher states, “the features of writing to which automated scoring systems are least sensitive are the very ones that writing instructors most value, including audience awareness, factual accuracy, rhetorical style, and quality of argument.
Conversely, the factors to which machines are most sensitive—essay length and mechanical correctness—are the ones the writing community values least. To the extent that students and teachers adjust their practice to emphasize the latter set of factors over the former, student writing may suffer.”
That suffering translates into a lack of preparation for college-level academic work. The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” recommends against this kind of testing, because “standardized writing curricula or assessment instruments that emphasize formulaic writing for nonauthentic audiences will not reinforce the habits of mind and the experiences necessary for success as students encounter the writing demands of postsecondary education.
The online resource I’ve developed, College-Ready Writing Essentials, is a classroom and home resource designed to give students the kind of authentic composition experience they need most for college success instead.
Dr. Bryant has been a writer, editor, and educator for over three decades. His blogging has been featured on GettingSmart, Curmudgication, and in Bright Magazine. In addition to college-readiness, he writes about education, equity, democracy—and how they fit together. He also writes about his 2yr old’s education in a substack here.