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Writing scores slip slightly across county, state
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Though Effingham County’s scores on the Georgia High School Writing Test declined slightly from last year to this year, school officials see no cause for alarm.

Effingham’s mean scale score dipped from 224 in 2012 to 219 this year on the test given each fall to 11th-graders. Also, the percentage of Effingham students passing the test on their first time taking it dropped from 93 percent to 91.

But at the same time, the statewide GHSWT scores declined, from 226 to 224 on the mean scale score and from 95 percent of first-time test-takers passing it to 94.

“If we were not following a trend we see at the state level, then I think it would cause us greater concern,” said Judith Shuman, the Effingham County School System’s student and professional learning coordinator. “If there was something we were missing locally, then we would be out of sync with what the state does.”

The Georgia High School Writing Test requires students to write a persuasive essay in 90 minutes, without knowing ahead of time what the topic will be. Passing the test is one of the requirements to earn a high school diploma in Georgia.

A total of 697 Effingham County 11th-graders took the GHSWT this year, with 598 meeting the standard for the test, 39 exceeding the standard and 60 not meeting it. Students who do not pass the test can take it as many as four more times before they graduate, Shuman said.

“We’re looking at, system-wide, 60 students that we still need to be working with in order to make sure they are successful on that test prior to the time of their graduation,” she said.

One step the Effingham County School System has taken to improve students’ writing has been to implement the Write to Learn computer program. The program was introduced in middle schools last year and into high schools this year. It enables students to practice writing and receive immediate feedback.

The benefit of Write to Learn might be more evident in next year’s GHSWT results, according to Shuman. Since the program is in its first year in Effingham’s high schools, juniors had access to it only in August and September prior to taking the 2013 test.

The school district has contracted with Shelly Smith, a retired teacher and former director of First District RESA (Regional Educational Service Agency), to consult with the county’s high school English-language arts teachers on curriculum and instruction. Also, Lyn Long, a gifted/talented teacher at Effingham County and South Effingham middle schools, is working on literacy strategies with teachers in all three middle schools.

“I do know we’re focusing on writing more than ever before,” said Superintendent Randy Shearouse.

The topic for this year’s GHSWT was whether community service should be a requirement for high school graduation in Georgia. Students were instructed to write a persuasive letter to convince their local school board to support or reject that idea, using details and examples to support their position.

Shuman pointed out that some Georgia school districts already have established community service as a graduation requirement, so students in those districts might have been better equipped to answer the question than students in districts that do not require it.

“There’s always the background that a child brings to a particular topic that might make a difference,” she said.