Writing Prescriptions

Duane Roberts highlights the writing crisis and looks for technological solutions

The hallmark of an education
has always been the ability to communicate, verbally or in writing, and those are the very skills that the marketplace demands, but is unable to fulfill. Most critically, only in writing, is the ability to communicate and think inextricably linked. Writing is the neglected partner of reading in the battle against illiteracy. It is reading levels that receive the media attention and reading programs that receive funding, yet writing which is just as necessary a skill is all too often ignored. The National Commission on Writing has warned that writing is “The Neglected R” and cites the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores as proof. “The quality of writing must be improved if students are to succeed in college and in life,” the Commission’s report concludes. From kindergarten to 12th grade, writing skills of students are deteriorating. Current statistics show that the majority of students entering college today have writing skill levels in the range of grades 8-10 — with some as low as grade 5. Writing tests of 4th- and 7thgraders in North Carolina showed drops of 22 points in 2004, to 47 percent. And the

most recent NAEP test results show that 70 to 80 percent of high school students are not proficient writers. Former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige commenting on the NAEP Report Card on Writing, noted “...more than two-thirds of the nation’s students still perform below the proficient level in writing. We need to make a collective effort to help our students become better writers. It will require diligence because one size does not fit all in any endeavor to improve student performance in any subject. We must find out what works best for which students.” For aspiring college students, the first hurdle is getting past national tests to go into the school of their choice. Last year, 1.2 million students took the ACT and 1.4 million took the SAT. However, the SAT has introduced a 25-minute multiple-choice section testing grammar, usage, and word choice in March, 2005. The test is similar to the current SAT II writing exam that students applying to more selective colleges are sometimes required to take. The new test will be worth a total of 2,400 points. And the grammar section will account for more than 500 points — which can make the difference between a student’s first-choice college versus a backup school.

The effect of these tests now incorporating writing and even grammar is trickling down to every school system in America, where the focus is now shifting to helping students articulate themselves in writing. At the College of the City of New York (CCNY), about 55 percent of entering freshman fail the writing test and must take preparatory courses. Over the past several years, polls taken by Public Agenda and Education Week show that employers and college professors believe poor writing skills to be the number one problem of graduating high school seniors. At Miami Dade-College (MDC), approximately 80% of the entering students require remedial English courses. The ability to write in college is directly correlated with a student’s ability to finally get a degree. For second language learners, written literacy skills are the keys to success. Second language learners have had a major impact on the K-12 school system in America. Many are not fully literate in either their native language or English — only 44 percent of Latino fourth graders nationwide scored at or above the basic level on the most recent reading exams according to NAEP. Ironically, while the demand for good writApril 2006



ing in English has increased, the pool of teachers trained to provide composition skills has diminished. The quality of writing has withered in recent years as demands on teachers and students have placed constraints on the time and resources needed to cultivate good writing skills. In addition, the increase of foreign speaking students over the years has added to the strain on these resources. The necessary hours for teachers to spend reviewing and grading papers are more difficult to come by as more demands are placed upon those who educate our children. But the problem is also generated from the student side: Writing requires students to actually sit down and take time out of their busy days. People in general, but especially those in the MTV generation, are constantly bombarded with ideas and thoughts that are handed to them on the Internet, TV, or other forms of mass media. In the era of Instant Messaging, it is indeed ironic that composition students must wait a week to have a teacher return a corrected paper. This delay in feedback is not suited to this new, computer-savvy generation whose literacy is increasingly shaped by technology. Of course, more reading usually leads to
April 2006

better writing skills, however composition requires its own skill set and, more than anything else, lost and lots of practice. It is generally accepted that children need to complete three writing assignments a week in grades 3-12 to develop into proficient writers, which creates an enormous volume of work for any teacher, let alone teachers with numerous English language learners, so any help is welcome. Not surprisingly, educational software companies are trying to perfect programs to teach writing skills with varying degrees of success. Educational Testing Service launched Criterion, its online writing evaluation service, a couple of years ago; Vantage Learning markets a prompt-driven webbased writing environment called My Access; and Pearson Education has recently acquired Knowledge Analysis Technologies (KAT) and its Intelligent Essay Assessor. All of these systems provide the environment and tools for students to improve their writing skills by practicing essay composition and receiving automatic assessment, although they cost in excess of $20 per student per year, so they may be beyond the reach of many school districts.

Coming in at about half that price is a system which has been developed by Pomona Unified School District, the RxNet Writer, also known as the California Electronic Writer. This system has the advantage if being developed by teachers for teachers, as well as a much wider scoring range than its competitors. It is now in use by several school districts in California, with trials in other states including Hawaii. So far the system seems to be living up to its promise of actually teaching students how to write instead of just assessing them, which in itself is a major achievement. Of course, teachers need all the help that they can get and these systems have the potential to rapidly increase writing scores. However, there is little point in implementing systems and training programs if budgets will be unable to sustain their use in the long term.

Duane Roberts is freelance writer specializing in computer technology based in Memphis, Tennessee. His interests include creative writing, language and artificial intelligence.


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