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Writing scores slip a little but still beat state average
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The Effingham County School System’s scores on the Georgia fifth-grade writing assessment dipped slightly this year from last year, though they remained above the state and regional averages.

The average score among Effingham’s eight elementary schools was 216, ranging from 201 at Sand Hill Elementary to 231 at South Effingham Elementary. That exceeded the averages of 214 for the state and 208 for the First District Regional Education Service Agency, which serves Effingham and 17 other local school systems.

However, Effingham’s average score decreased from 220 a year ago. Also, the county had a 1 percent dip in its students meeting or exceeding the standard for the test, to 83 percent.

“We continue to address writing as a priority in the system,” said Judith Shuman, the Effingham County School System’s student and professional learning coordinator.

Springfield Elementary had the district’s highest percentage of students exceeding the standard, 29 percent, followed closely by South Effingham at 28 percent. Springfield also had the highest increase of students meeting or exceeding, leaping eight percentage points to 92 percent.

“They’ve worked very hard,” Shuman said of SES. “They’re just staying at it constantly.”

South Effingham also had a 92-percent meeting or exceeding rate, a 2 percent increase from last year. Three other elementary schools had meeting or exceeding improvement: Guyton, up 7 percent to 79 percent; Blandford, up 4 percent to 87 percent; and Ebenezer, up 1 percent to 79 percent.

Three schools, though, had double-digit decreases in students meeting or exceeding. Marlow (81 percent) and Sand Hill (70 percent) each dropped by 12 percent, while Rincon’s average fell 17 percentage points to 72.

“I guess (the scores are) overall good, but I’m concerned about those three there,” said school board Chairman Lamar Allen. “We need to find an answer.”

With that in mind, Shuman said, the district is turning to the school that showed the most improvement this year. School officials have met with Springfield Elementary’s teachers and instructional specialist to learn more about what they’re doing.

One key, according to Shuman, is Springfield’s commitment to modeled writing. Rather than simply giving a writing assignment, SES teachers think aloud and model the writing process for students.

“Just like when I used to watch a math teacher solve a problem by thinking out loud,” Shuman said, “if I wasn’t a mathematical thinker, I can learn to model the thinking when it doesn’t come naturally to me. A teacher models the writing process, and you can replicate it with other teachers.”

Another method to improve writing test scores is teaching evidence-based writing. Students must use evidence in their writing, rather than simply describing how they think or feel.

“You can’t just say, ‘It’s a great poem. I really loved it,’” Shuman explained. “Tell me what made it great.”

For instance, students could describe the poem's construction or the use of figurative language, Shuman said.

“Cite it and say,” she said.

Georgia’s fifth-grade writing assessment is administered each March, and students are given two hours to write. Unlike the 11th-grade writing assessment, which calls for students to write a persuasive essay on a particular topic, fifth-graders could be given a narrative, informational or persuasive writing prompt.

“The idea, by 11th grade, is that a student would incorporate informational and narrative writing within a persuasive piece,” Shuman said.