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Students beat state average
Writing test scores slip from previous years
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Effingham County high school students slightly beat out the state average in the number of students who meet and exceed standards on the state writing test.

On the test 84 percent of county students met the standards and 6 percent exceeded the standards. Statewide, 84 percent met the standards and 5 percent exceeded the standards.

In the 1st District RESA 83 percent met standards, and 5 percent exceeded standards.

“We are a bit ahead of the RESA and the state, but still not comfortable,” curriculum coordinator Judith Shuman said.
South Effingham High School students had a higher percentage of students meet the standard than Effingham County High School, but ECHS had a higher percentage exceed the standards.

Of the SEHS students who took the test 87 percent met the standard, and 5 percent exceeded the standard. Of the ECHS students who took the test 80 percent met the standard, and 8 percent exceeded the standard.

Shuman said the test given in the fall was the first time the revised test has been given.

The changes in the test reflect the change to the Georgia Performance Standards in the language arts curriculum. All grade levels changed to the new standards in the 2005-2006 school year.

“We also have new writing tests in third and eighth grade,” she said. “The stakes for those tests are not quite as high from the stand point of students must pass this for high school graduation requirements. Directly, the stakes are not as high on those tests; indirectly, the outcome at this grade level from their performance on those tests does have an impact.”

Shuman said what the system saw at all grade levels was a decline in the number of students who met the expectations.

“That is a typical trend anytime a test is changed,” she said. “That requires that we begin looking at the areas that students were not meeting some of the new expectations and begin to address ways that we can help those gaps be filled.”

Shuman said there are a few differences, including the amount of time students now have to take the test. The test also is scored differently now that the changes have been made. She said she believes the area that had the most significant impact is the new expectation of the type of writing a student would produce.

“In the past, all the grade levels have been able to write a very formulaic essay,” Shuman said. “That was easy for a teacher to describe exactly what an expectation was, to give very explicit models. A standard five paragraph essay would get you a passing score.”

She said the new expectation is that students have “genre awareness.”

“Even though the type of writing expected for the 11th graders is a good, persuasive piece, the desire is to see different types of genres represented within the persuasive piece to accomplish the persuasion,” Shuman said. “Those may be narrative pieces; they may be informational pieces.”

Shuman said students in the past have been instructed not to be personal in their writing, and to avoid using the first person. Now students are encouraged to draw on personal experience and use narrative in a persuasive piece of writing.

“The expectations have changed for those children, and we are having to get them out of the comfort zone of the nice little five paragraph essay and get them to stretch themselves some,” she said.

Shuman said the system is used to having more than 90 percent of students meet expectations on the high school writing test, and this is the first time the system has been below that expectation.

“We will be looking at some professional development for teachers to assist them with the new expectation,” Shuman said, “obviously ample opportunities to practice, informing the students about the test, and what the test is like, all of which has been done. However, we are still having to wean them away from that formula writing and teach them that it’s OK to be very creative and very expressive when they’re writing now.”

Shuman said the approach before the changes to the test was to have students write the safe essay that they knew would allow them to pass. Now they are required to take several writing styles and pull them together.

“For some students, that blank piece of paper in front of them is such an intimidating prospect,” Shuman said.

She said topics tend to be very specific, and that is something that teachers work on with students prior to the test.

Shuman said one thing that has been heard is the Department of Education plans to do some work to help with gaps that have been discovered in the curriculum and to hold workshops throughout the state to help teachers determine if they have made all the necessary changes to convert to the new standards.

“We have begun a revision of the middle school language arts curriculum,” she said.

Shuman said when the score is determined from the test the largest portion of the score is for ideas.

“The ideas that the student brings to the paper are scored more heavily than things like spelling and punctuation,” Shuman said. “Generally, as long as a student’s mechanical writing doesn’t interfere with the communication, we encourage them to take the risk.”

Shuman said this includes using sentences of varying style, even if the student is risking not using the correct punctuation.

“The attempt is awarded in the paper,” Shuman said. She said content was scored more heavily in the previous version of the test.

“Of course, ideas are the hardest part of writing,” she said. “Mechanics are teachable. Computers do spell check and punctuation check for us now, but the idea part of it is the most difficult part for any writer, I would think. Of course, then it is likewise scored most heavily.”

She said another way to help students is to give them a wider range of experience to draw from when writing.

“It requires either direct experience or indirect experience through things like reading to have a base from which to draw these ideas,” Shuman said.

She said the technology available helps to give students experiences that would not be available any other way.

“When we can’t take a child, obviously, to Rome — we can bring Rome to them in so many ways now,” Shuman said.

“The more we can let them experience the world that they can’t access directly, the better idea base we can build for them. The technology is important; having been a former English teacher, nothing replaces reading in my mind. The more we can get them to read, the better writers they become as well.”

She said the new performance standards integrate all aspects vocabulary, reading and writing.

“If you want to know whether a child knows something, truly knows it, have them write what they know,” Shuman said. “It is the ultimate form of assessment. They are practicing a needed skill and they are telling you what they really know. We encourage them to write in as many arenas as possible.”