Better writing: High-scoring schools say it’s not easy

Curriculum director: ‘There is no magic program’

writing samples

These two pieces of writing were among those released by the Michigan Department of Education as examples of student work and how it was scored on the fall 2006 English Language portion of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. Both pieces are from the third-grade test, which asked students to read two stories and then answer this question: “Do the children feel good or bad at the end of the stories? Why? Explain your answers using specific details and examples from both ‘The Hill’ and ‘Iris and Walter Are Friends.’ Be sure to show how the two selections are alike or connected.” The third-grade test also asked students to edit sentences for such things as spelling, structure and capitalization. The complete test and released items from other grades are available at http://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,1607,7-140-22709_31168_31355---,00.html.

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Good writing scores are hard to come by in the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, but a few school districts are producing students who are the exceptions.

While reading and math scores generally improved on fall 2006 MEAP tests, the number of students who met or exceeded writing expectations fell in four of six grades tested. In addition, writing scores generally trailed reading scores by 10 to 40 percentage points, particularly in early grades.

But Okemos Public Schools, near Lansing, and Vanguard Academy, a charter public school in Wyoming, Mich., have better news to report. Michigan Education Report talked with Patricia Trelstad, assistant superintendent at Okemos, and Valerie Masunas, eighth grade English teacher at Vanguard, about their schools’ respective scores, which bested the state average by as much as 30 percentage points in recent years.

A number of factors contributed to the numbers, each said, but common to both schools are an emphasis on writing in all classes, teacher development, a writing curriculum and time spent specifically focused on writing.

"If you look at our School Improvement Plan, all schools … have writing as a school improvement goal. It’s a focus in all of the buildings," Trelstad said. At the high school level, "all staff in the building have made a commitment to write with students. People understand that kids can’t just write in language arts class. Writing is a focus in a broad sense in Okemos."

Similarly, when Vanguard students are asked to write a paragraph in math class about a mathematical concept, they are graded not only on how well they understand the math, but on how well they explain it, Masunas said. The school requires non-language arts teachers to assign writing projects, she added.




This approach of "writing across the curriculum" not only allows a school to spend more time on writing, but also demonstrates that writing is important in all fields. It is also one of the recognized ways of improving writing skills, according to Dr. Gary Troia, a Michigan State University associate professor who studies writing instruction and assessment.

Another similarity between the schools is the use of the "6 Traits" approach — a model that identifies six specific traits that are characteristic of good writing — for at least some writing instruction. The traits are "ideas and content," "organization," "voice," "word choice," "sentence fluency" and "conventions." Developed at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, a private, nonprofit organization in Oregon, the original model came from teachers looking for a way to evaluate writing consistently and objectively. Today the organization sells books and related material for classroom use.

"I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it," Masunas said. Writing — and grading of writing — is often seen as subjective, but supporters say the Six Traits approach helps make writing instruction concrete and specific. Students understand that if they are studying "organization," they are likely to be graded on such things as transition or closing sentences.

This process also matches up well with what Michigan expects of its students, Trelstad and Masunas said. When a teacher focuses on one of the six traits in the classroom, he or she can expect that the same trait will be measured in MEAP testing. The MEAP scoring system says student essays are evaluated for "ideas and content," "organization," "precise word choice" and "mastery of writing conventions," among other things.

Other Michigan districts have found that using curricula with specific writing objectives has improved test scores. An article in the Toledo Blade said that teachers in Monroe County’s Bedford Public Schools reported higher MEAP writing scores after the district began using the CraftPlus writing program. Similarly, Niles teachers told local media that the CraftPlus writing program helped one of their elementary schools earn a designation as a Michigan Department of Education Blue Ribbon Exemplary School.

Still, a helpful curriculum isn’t enough, educators said. MSU’s Troia said there is little empirical research to date to show that any one curriculum boosts writing scores, although he agreed that a methodology that provides concrete, specific feedback to students about their work is "very important."

"Sometimes people want a magic program," Trelstad said. "The magic program in education is the teachers."

Teachers in Okemos who want to become better writing instructors might take extra training voluntarily, or they might be sent by a building administrator, she said. They might join other teachers in buildingwide professional development programs.

"Professional development is greatly supported by our administration," echoed Masunas. Vanguard teachers have attended writing workshops sponsored by the Kent Intermediate School District as well as workshops in the Six Traits method.

TEACHERS AS WRITERS

Not all teachers feel as confident in their own writing as they do in reading or math skills, and that may show up in their instruction, Troia said.

"Many teachers don’t consider themselves to be quote, unquote, writers," he said. "They may not write poetry, for example, or keep a journal. They often feel ill-equipped to take on the role of (writing) mentor for students. … I think that’s one reason why teachers may feel writing is more difficult to teach."

Consequently, teachers may teach less of certain forms of writing, like poetry, even though for some students poetry may be the best genre for motivating them to write, he said. The National Writing Project is attempting to address that issue, he said, by offering workshops across the country that help teachers develop as writers, not just as teachers of
writing.

Another MSU educator, Fred Barton, used to be a case in point.

"I was trained as a literary critic," he said of his own undergraduate coursework. "The idea of composition as a field of study isn’t that old." Teachers who are now mid- to late-career educators are less likely to have studied teaching methodologies for writing than today’s teacher candidates, Barton said.

"Students (in teacher preparation programs) coming through now are getting exposed to both reading and writing instruction much earlier than I was," he said. Barton is coordinator of the Learning Resources Center at MSU and previously taught in public and private schools for more than 30 years. He also is president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English.

At Hillsdale College, students in the teacher education program are expected to become good writers themselves as the basis for teaching writing in the future, said Jon Fennell, director and associate professor of teacher education. Fennell said he is skeptical of technology or curricula that claim to improve writing, saying the teacher’s own skill level is more important.

"Was that teacher taught grammar? Did that teacher actually write a lot? Did that teacher receive careful oversight of her writing?" he asked.

In his own class, Fennell has introduced an assignment that requires students to write an essay. It’s only a one-page essay, he said, but each student must rewrite it until it meets Fennell’s expectations.

"The record last year was 13 drafts," he said. "I think that student learned something about how to write."

The number of parents looking for writing tutors has increased enough to prompt Sylvan Learning Center, a national tutoring services company, to expand its writing program to include second- and third-graders next year, according to Emily Levitt, program manager for writing.

"We are seeing so many elementary students coming to us," she said, particularly as more states implement standardized writing tests in lower grades.

"Our two biggest parent concerns are spelling and organization," she told Michigan Education Report. "I think those are two things that are easy for parents to spot."

At the other end of the age spectrum, the company also sees a growing number of high school students who want an edge on college admission essays. More colleges and universities are requiring students to complete the essay portion of the ACT test, she pointed out.

"Some students feel pretty comfortable with the SAT or ACT, but they want to know how to write for the test. They’re looking for strategies," Levitt said. "We also have some students who really need writing help from the ground up."

Time is another issue in writing instruction.

"To teach writing well is a very labor-intensive thing," Barton said. "In today’s economy, that sort of thing is at the top of the line in likelihood of being cut."

According to data collected in 1998 through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly seven in 10 teachers said they use a "process-oriented approach" to writing instruction that includes brainstorming, research, writing and rewriting, Troia said. But only one-third of those teachers said they spend 90 minutes or more a week on writing instruction.

"That would suggest the process is very truncated," he said. "It doesn’t give students time."

Teachers in Okemos tell Trelstad that, "It’s harder to fit everything in. There’s more to teach now."

At Vanguard, elementary students have focused writing instruction three days a week, each time with a core teacher and two assistants. That allows the teacher to group students by skill level, with each group receiving individual help, Masunas said. The middle school schedule is organized in 90-minute blocks, effectively giving students more time to write.

"You have to practice to be a good writer," said Levitt. Sylvan writing tutors — all certified teachers — focus on common school writing projects, such as compare-and-contrast essays and descriptive writing. Grammar, spelling and other conventions are worked in as part of the process, she said. But even among potential tutors, Levitt said, she has found some who prefer not to tutor in writing.

"I was really surprised to find how many aren’t comfortable teaching writing," she said.

Research shows that students benefit from extensive and focused feedback about their writing, Troia said, but "for secondary teachers who often teach 120 to 150 students, it is overwhelming to them." The volume of paperwork is only part of the problem, he said; another is that in some cases teachers are able to recognize weak spots in student work, but don’t know how to describe the weakness in ways that can help a student improve.

"That’s one reason teachers may find it easier to give feedback on conventions," Troia said. So rather than explain to a student why his or her argument is not persuasive and offer concrete suggestions for constructing a better argument, the teacher might focus on spelling errors or run-on sentences.

"There’s nothing more laborious than having to read those papers," Fennell said, but the alternative is fewer writing assignments and fewer opportunities for students to practice. As that cycle repeats itself, students end up at college without the ability to write effectively, he said.

MEAP CHANGES AHEAD

The MEAP writing test will change next year to include five more multiple choice questions, according to Ed Roeber, senior executive director of the Office of Educational Assessment and Accountability in the Michigan Department of Education. The current test asks students to write one essay in response to a selected reading and another in response to a prompt. The third-grade test in 2006, for example, asked students to write about "being responsible." In addition to the essays, it included five multiple choice questions.

The challenge is to develop a test that reliably assesses student writing ability at a reasonable cost in time and money, he said.

"The shorter the test, the less reliable it is," Roeber said. But asking students to write another MEAP essay would increase the test time and the cost to score it. The writing portion is already MEAP’s most expensive component, he said. Each essay is read by a scorer who has been trained on sample essays and gauges the student’s work against established guidelines. The scorers are monitored as they work for "drift," or the tendency to stray from the guidelines, he said. That might happen if, for example, a scorer reads several exceptional essays in a row and then holds the next essay to a higher standard than called for by the guidelines. When scorers drift, Roeber has the option of retraining them or, if the problem continues, letting them go.

At the lower elementary level, 20 percent of the essays are scored a second time by a different individual to check for congruence among scorers, he explained.

Writing scores on assessment tests tend to be lower than in other subjects partly because students "can’t guess at the answer," Roeber said. "They’ve got to produce it."

The state’s primary role in teaching writing is to set expectations and explain them clearly to teachers, said Betty Underwood, interim director of the state Office of School Improvement. "As far as going out and working with individual schools, we don’t have the capacity to do that."

Many intermediate school districts have literacy specialists on staff to work with local districts, she pointed out, and some also publish sample lessons or guidebooks that "pull together what we call ‘promising practices.’"

Educators say the MEAP writing scores don’t necessarily tell the whole story on student ability.

"As with any assessment, (MEAP) is one piece of information on one day," Trelstad said. A poor writer might do well on the MEAP if the given topic is something they know and like, she said. Conversely, she added, teachers have had cases in which they ask themselves, "How did this kid get a 3 on the MEAP? He’s my best writer."

"I think the MEAP has its limitations," she continued. "It’s one tool we use. … It sometimes isn’t reflective of what a child has to offer."

"Grading writing is very subjective," Masunas said. "The MEAP does not give us a full picture. We’re just hoping that the rubric we’ve been told to use is the rubric the graders are using."

Troia and Barton both said that reading and math receive more attention and resources under the federal No Child Left Behind Act than does writing, because those scores weigh more in determining whether a school district is making "adequate yearly progress." Title I schools that fail to make AYP for a given number of years are subject to consequences that include providing tutoring or arranging for children to attend another school.

"It is certainly the case that NCLB privileges reading and math over writing," Troia said. Professional development is more often dedicated to reading, math and science than to writing, he said, as are efforts to align the local curriculum with state content expectations. "I think that’s why we’re seeing these high-profile reports emerging."

Among those reports are "The Neglected R," by the National Commission on Writing, and this year’s "Writing Next." "The Neglected R," presented to Congress in 2003, recommended that the amount of time spent on classroom writing be doubled; that states reevaluate writing expectations; that each school district be required to have a writing plan; and that every prospective primary and secondary teacher learn how to teach writing, regardless of their discipline.

"Writing Next," commissioned by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and published by the Alliance for Excellent Education, stated, "American students today are not meeting even basic writing standards and their teachers are often at a loss for how to help them."

"I would suspect that writing is going to get a lot more (research) emphasis in the next few years," Troia said.

As schools look for ways to improve writing skills, Barton said it would be a mistake to narrow the emphasis to predefined, "measurable" skills at the expense of creativity. Some of that happens already, he said.

Measurable skills are easy to pick out and to evaluate, like whether a paragraph has a topic sentence or how many supporting details a child uses in comparing two stories, Barton said. It’s more difficult to evaluate whether that child is developing "voice," which Barton said is equally important.

"So much emphasis on assessment and accountability tends to drive creative things right out of the classroom," he said. "Having been a writing teacher, I know often you have good writers who are … inhibited by those formulaic structures. … The five-paragraph essay certainly does have its values, but I tell my kids those things are like training wheels. Sooner or later the training wheels have to come off."