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Eighth-grade writing scores on the rise
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Efforts to improve Effingham County students’ writing skills have paid off with higher scores on Georgia’s Eighth-Grade Writing Assessment, school officials reported last week.

Effingham eighth-graders took the writing assessment in January, and this year’s county scores exceeded last year’s across the board. Students also scored comparably to the state averages and exceeded the scores for the First District Regional Education Service Agency (RESA), which serves Effingham and 17 other counties.

“The writing initiative efforts have shown an outcome we were hoping for,” said Judith Shuman, student and professional learning coordinator for the Effingham County School System. “Of course, we’ll be encouraging folks to continue with those initiatives already in place, as well as looking for other opportunities to continue that momentum in the future.”

This year, 76 percent of Effingham County eighth-graders met the standard on the state writing assessment and another 5 percent exceeded it. The total of 81 percent meeting or exceeding the standard topped the 74 percent from each of the past two years and 71 percent in 2010.

The Effingham County Board of Education in 2009 began a targeted effort to improve students’ writing test scores. The district implemented two programs, Write from the Beginning in its elementary schools and Write for the Future in middle schools.

Other steps have included providing additional training for teachers on the Eighth-Grade Writing Assessment and establishing writing portfolios for students beginning in kindergarten. Samples of students’ writing accompany them through each grade, so the next year’s teacher can see the student’s strengths and weaknesses.

“It’s nice to see we’re hitting our target, where we wanted to be from 2009,” Superintendent Randy Shearouse said. “I think the initiatives the board approved back in ’09 are really paying off.”

Another initiative seeing good results is Write to Learn, an online program the district put into the middle schools prior to the current school year. Shuman said “the only complaint (teachers) have about the program is they want more computers to be able to get to it.”

All middle school students in Effingham County have access to Write to Learn, but they take turns using it. The Effingham County School System has the capability for 100 students, from its three middle schools combined, to be logged onto Write to Learn at any one time, Shuman said.

“We’re going to try to enhance that amount,” Assistant Superintendent Greg Arnsdorff said. “It’s gotten good reviews from our staff as far as helping them manage their time and providing instructive feedback to students.”

The board of education is starting work on its fiscal year 2014 budget, which will go into effect July 1. Arnsdorff lobbied for the budget to include “a little bit” of additional funding for Write to Learn, including possibly making it available to high school students.

“Hopefully we can work that out,” Chairman Lamar Allen said.

At both South Effingham and Ebenezer middle schools, 83 percent of students this year met or exceeded the standard on the Eighth-Grade Writing Assessment. That compares to 78 percent at SEMS and 71 percent at EMS in 2009, when the school district began its efforts to improve students’ writing.

However, the biggest beneficiary of the school district’s writing initiatives has been Effingham County Middle. Seventy-eight percent of ECMS eighth-graders met or exceeded the standard on this year’s writing assessment, a significant increase from 58 percent just three years ago.

“We continue to be impressed by the progress they’ve made out there over the last several years, not just with writing but every other area as well,” Shearouse said.

Arnsdorff pointed out that, while Effingham County’s scores improved this year on the Eighth-Grade Writing Assessment, the state’s results remained the same. Statewide, 82 percent of students met or exceeded the standard, the same number as last year.

“This certainly demonstrates that, with the state not changing, our gain truly is a gain based on the work of the staff,” Arnsdorff said. “It certainly is the teachers who are making the difference.”

In addition, Arsndorff said, the new Common Core Georgia Performance Standards are requiring students to write in all subject areas, not just English/language arts. Also, Effingham is one of five school systems in Georgia participating in the Literacy Design Collaborative, an effort through the Gates Foundation to develop reading, writing and thinking skills within all academic disciplines.

“Kids are doing a lot more writing now,” Shearouse said.