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Effingham 8th graders show the write stuff on tests
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Writing scores for Effingham County eighth graders improved 15 percent from last year’s scores, Assistant Superintendent Gregg Arnsdorff said at Wednesday’s board of education meeting.

“Georgia law requires that grades three, five and eight have assessment of student writing take place each year,” Arnsdorff said. “Eighth grade is the first. They have the test in January. Last year I had the displeasure of reporting scores that weren’t to any of our satisfaction.”

He said the system is accustomed to students performing above the state average every year on state tests, but last year was the first time the new writing test was given, and the scores were less than typically expected.

“Each student in eighth grade is assigned a topic,” Arnsdorff said. “It’s one of two topics, and they are either
expository or persuasive. That paper is scored individually by two different graders, and they look at several various components.”

He said the components looked for in student writing include ideas, organization, style and grammar.

Arnsdorff said examples of what students are asked to write include writing a report for an idea for a new children’s television show — an expository piece — or they may be asked to write a persuasive letter to a television executive to keep their favorite show from being canceled.

“A paper that exceeds standards in many respects clearly focuses on the topic, the type of paper they are called to write, and the audience in which the student is speaking to,” he said.

Students also use sequenced paragraphs, have varied word choices and sentence lengths, sustain the attention of the audience and grammar is generally correct throughout the paper.

He said a meets standards paper has a generally focused paper. They are aware of who they are writing to. There may be errors in the paper, but the errors do not take away from the meaning of the paper.

“Things just don’t change,” Arnsdorff said. “We had to have a plan of attack. We could have done one thing — we could have said, ‘let’s see how we do the second time around.’

“We chose to take an attack that did cost us a little bit of money,” he said. “What we decided was to pre-test all the eighth grade students in the fall. We took and had it scored. We had every student in the eighth grade take a prompt from the previous year’s assessment. They took it just as if it was the real test. We sent those tests off, and we paid to have them scored by two scorers just like it was the real test, and those results came back to the school.”

He said the system then held two workshops for key teachers and instructors to explain how the writing tests are scored to give teachers more information on how to guide students as they prepare for the writing test.

Arnsdorff said he believed there was success using this approach.

Arnsdorff said the area that the system now wants to continue to focus on is the number of students who exceed standards. This year systemwide, 3 percent of students exceeded the state standards.

“Two and three percent is not where we want to be,” he said. “Our goal now will be to move students from meeting standards over to push them over so we have more exemplary writing skills.”

He explained to the board how the system plans to improve student writing.

“On the day that they took this test in January in the eighth grade we administered the same test as we did in the fall to every sixth and seventh grader,” Arnsdorff said. “We will be receiving those scores back, so the schools will now be able to look at how those students performed and be able to tailor an improvement plan for each sixth and seventh grader to better prepare them for their eighth grade administration.”

He said the system is also looking at the curriculum.

Curriculum Coordinator Judith Shuman said the system is working with elementary school teachers. She said those teachers have asked for help in how to objectively score writing.

“So much of this is a good foundation for those writing skills in elementary school,” she said.

Shuman said the curriculum is also being examined to make sure writing skills are being taught appropriately at the middle school level.

Arnsdorff said the cost was approximately $4,000 to $5,000 to have the two scorers. He said it is a good investment to work on an area that needs improvement.

“Anything we do, no matter how many computers we have, you still have to be able to compose and try to communicate your thoughts,” he said.