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With the class average consistently coming in at 58%, you don’t have to be any type of wizard to figure out

that
the status quo might not be enough to cut it.

We live in an academic culture of accountability, where we are tested, then tested, then tested again to
reference ourselves against thresholds identified by the ministry as being the “ideal” place for most students to
be in any given area. For education, that’s most often associated with the Level 3 notch, and it applies
universally to all subjects at the Grade 8 level. Level 3, of course, corresponds with the 70-79% range, and it’s
the goal to bring as many students as possible to that place on the assessment continuum.

That 58% up there happened to be the class average in writing for one of our Grade 8 classes. Not the kind of
thing you want to rush out and share with the world necessarily, it was "discovered" as a result of an
accumulation of data gathered up to mid-January 2009. In addition to the formal assessments that are part of
any package of writing instruction, a number of other vehicles were used for diagnostic data collection, including
CAT 3 (Canadian Achievement Tests), the Ontario Writing Assessment (OWA) and CASI. The CASI program, of
course, is viewed more as a reading diagnostic, but it has some relevance in the assessment of writing as well,
owing to the fact that reading and writing are so inextricably linked.

Taken together, and viewed against the backdrop of all cross-curricular writing being done by the class, this data
began to crystallize into a picture. As much surprising as it was troubling, it was apparent that this class was
clipping along a full 12 percentage points, or thereabouts, below the provincial standard.

It needs to be said that there is no single book, no single plan, no one-stop shopping zone where you’re going to
go and get everything you need to fix what needs fixing, especially in writing. More than anything else, it’s
likely to be a combination of best practices, research, professional development, and creativity that bring
together a coherent program that addresses the unique needs of the situation. While it’s not necessarily saying
that’s what happened in this case, it's believed that these are key components to any such effort. And it’s with
this in mind that an effort was made to adjust the writing program to respond to the situation.

As a class, the areas in writing that were shown through testing and experience to be consistent areas of
weakness were identified. Those areas were targeted for instruction, and a rubric specific to each area was
developed.

Curriculum Righting Teams were formed. Yes, the area under focus was writing, but these teams can be applied
in a variety of curriculum areas, so the word righting was chosen to reflect the desire to “make things right”
again.
The culture of accountability was embraced. Students were placed in writing groups that comprised a cross-
section and balance of writers experiencing differing levels of success up to that point. When writing
assignments were completed, they would be assessed as usual, but each group member would receive a “group”
mark, which was the average attained through calculating the average of the group.. This mark was weighted as
a 1, whereas the individual mark was weighted as a 2.

This turned out to be critical. Some of the stronger students experienced the notion of being “pulled” down by
lower marks scored by fellow group members, while some of the “weaker” students experienced the effect of
being “elevated” by the good work of others. This created an interesting dynamic in the so-called CRT meetings
(Curriculum Righting Teams) where an element of group accountability began to emerge. It was quickly
discovered that, in many cases, the downward pressure on a group’s average was not so much the quality of
writing, but rather the lack of motivation, or perceived importance in completing assignments or providing a
“very best effort.” As a group, members had already consented to having all scores and data available for group
scrutiny, so it became increasingly more difficult for anyone wishing to slip through the cracks to do so, as there
was now internal group pressure to perform up to or near capability to protect the group’s over-all standing.

Groups began to form editing sessions, where each group member had to read their rough draft to the rest of the
group, and a collaborative effort was made to offer constructive feedback as to how the writing could be
improved. A special form was created for this feedback, and had to be submitted with the assignment as an
assessment reference tool.

Strategies contained in the Ontario Writing Assessment were utilized. Chief among them was the idea of
enforced and supervised On-Demand Writing, where students were required to write a piece in a single sitting, in
a controlled and supervised classroom environment, to be handed in at the conclusion of the session. As well, a
brainstorming sheet was implemented prior to each of these writing sessions, so students could experience the
process of mapping out their thoughts.

While such assignments didn’t make up the entirety of the program, they did fit in nicely with another concept
being worked on, that being the notion that the quality of writing is dependent upon the importance or urgency
of the situation. In other words, if called upon to do so, can a student deliver Level 3 writing on demand? Sort
of like a driver’s test. Many licenced drivers don’t drive their very best all the time. But could they deliver the
mustard in order to pass a driver’s test? This kind of “situational” writing may offend language purists, but to
ignore its existence may well be akin to ignoring information simply because it doesn’t fit into a preferred
hypothesis.

There were rewards. All individuals in a group achieving a group average of 70% or higher at the end of the
program reporting period would receive a 3% credit in writing on their report card. Unknown to them at the
time were other incentives or features. For example, a student attaining the highest mark within a group would
be granted a 2% bonus, to recognize their efforts toward elevating the group as a whole. These were often the
very same people who informally adopted a leadership role within the group, and who were responsible in other
ways for the improvement experienced by some of their peers. As well, all students who managed to hand in all
assignments were awarded a 1% bonus for their efforts. And finally, any student, at the end of the program, who
wished to have their marks severed from the rest of the group, could do so.

Again, purists and guardians of academic integrity might have difficulty with the idea of these percentage
“giveaways,” but academic integrity is a nebulous beast, a thing that evolves, and arguments can be easily made
that such a system has as much integrity as the next, and given the group dynamic and results, perhaps even
more so. Sometimes in the great march towards success, a paradigm or two might fall by the wayside. The
idea, and concern, of marks being thrown about like candy was given due consideration in the planning stage. It
was concluded that the positives that may accrue in the pursuit of these bonuses more than out-weighed any
sense of irresponsible academic largesse, something that was borne-out at the conclusion of the program.

While the original focus was on writing, the group accountability component developed skills necessary for many
future contexts in the lives of students, whether academic or in the workplace. Nudging each other along,
supporting one another, and creating pride in the effort was, one could argue, instrumental in the improved
success many students encountered as a result of their participation in this program.

Some students, it appeared, had simply fallen into a culture of academic malaise, and when faced with the
success and higher marks that resulted from their efforts, were surprised at how good it made them feel about
themselves. Perhaps the most telling moment occurred when one student, by no means the top producer in the
group, handed in an assignment one morning. Simply by doing so, the group mark rose to the magic 70% mark.
Her group literally cheered. Remember, this is grade 8, and group cheering for writing assignments isn’t
necessarily something you see a lot of. But it was like this student had scored the winning goal in overtime.
That smile on her face had a lot of depth to it.

Anyway, here’s how it all shook out.

First, two of the five groups achieved the Level 3 threshold, resulting in ten students receiving the 3% bonus.
The highest mark in either of these groups was 91%, and the lowest 70%. The other three groups ranged from
67% - 69%, and so did not qualify for the group bonus. Five students, of course, picked up 2% bonuses for having
the highest marks within their groups, and two of these students were able to add this bonus to their group
bonus. And finally, 20 of 26 students were able to claim a 1% bonus for handing all nine of their assignments in.
The highest bonus package of 6% went to two students. Only three students were unable to qualify for an
incentive bonus of any kind.

But remember, all this started with a class average of 58% in writing. So it’s that indicator that needed
addressing, and the hope was that all the effort put into the whole package, by teacher and students alike,
would result in a much healthier result.

And it did. Before the calculation of bonuses, the class average rested at 69.6%. With bonuses thrown in, it rose
to 71.6%.

The greatest effort, and resulting praise, belongs to the students. Yes, a system was crafted for them, a
framework within which they could operate. But there can be no doubt that the success attained as a group was
for the most part arrived at through the peer-accountability concept. That, at the end of the day, they just
didn’t want to let their peers down. And by developing that shared responsibility, they found something out
about themselves, that they could write well, that they could succeed, and that they could feel proud of it
enough to perhaps want to do it again.