Test improved student writing

EDUCATION BEAT

MSPAP: Departed program elevated the art of written expression in schools.

The Education Beat

April 30, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

If the pressure of the test is withdrawn, recent attention to writing instruction will diminish. That would assure that our youth would be unnecessarily the losers.

-- Maryland schools Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, Jan. 20, 1986

THAT WAS Hornbeck 17 years ago, but he could have written it yesterday -- or a year ago this month when state officials announced the end of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Writing was at the heart of MSPAP. Not only was there a separate writing test, but the questions in all of the disciplines, from math to social studies, were answered in writing.

I thought about this last week in Chicago, when the National Commission on Writing released a report documenting the dreadful state of the second "R" in American education. Titled "The Neglected `R'," the report calls for a writing "revolution."

If MSPAP did nothing else, it elevated writing. Teachers had no choice but to emphasize the second "R." Their schools' MSPAP scores rode on the writing chariot. And if much of what they did was formulaic -- one third-grade essay read pretty much like another -- there's no question that writing improved in Maryland schools over the MSPAP decade of the 1990s.

There's proof of that in the MSPAP writing scores themselves -- they rose slightly in the fifth grade and significantly in the third and eighth grades -- and there's backup proof in the Maryland functional writing test, a fixture since Hornbeck launched it in the mid-1980s.

Things were so simple then. Or were they?

The functional test required students to react to a "prompt" -- "Recommend a movie to a friend" -- in a short essay. I was one of the "citizens" who traveled to Frederick, there to spend a day advising state officials on the writing test samples and the "cut" score, the threshold for passing. (By contrast, a state official said yesterday that there will be 13 24-member advisory committees as the state sets the cut score on the new Maryland School Assessment.)

The quotation above is from a Hornbeck essay published in The Evening Sun in response to critics' calls for an end to the writing test. It was in trouble. Large numbers of Maryland kids were flunking it, including the sons and daughters of some Very Important People. There must be something wrong with the test, critics said, just as, more than a decade later, Montgomery County helped deep-six MSPAP after county scores lost some of their shine.

"Don't fool with an exam that's getting the job done," read the headline on Hornbeck's essay, in which the superintendent defended the grading (in Georgia) of the writing test and predicted that most of the 13,700 juniors who had yet to pass it would do so. The test was making better writers of Maryland kids, Hornbeck argued, and had prompted improved performance on tests like the SAT.

Hornbeck was right on all counts. Today, essentially the same test is given, and the pass rate is so high -- 97.3 percent in 2002 -- that some say it's too easy and ought to be scuttled.

The test that replaced MSPAP last month does require some brief written responses, but except for the now-routine functional exams that Hornbeck instituted, writing is all but gone from the Maryland testing.

The report issued in Chicago last week says that's happening across the country. Partly it's because the federal No Child Left Behind Act doesn't require the testing of writing. And, as Maryland discovered with MSPAP, genuine writing tests are time-consuming to administer and expensive to grade because machines can't do the job.

"Writing, always time-consuming for student and teacher, is today hard-pressed in the American classroom," the report says.

The latest findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress support the conclusion that the second leg of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic is "weak and unstable," in the words of C. Peter Magrath, a university association official who chaired the writing commission.

According to NAEP, only about a quarter of American students are "proficient" writers, and only in 100 falls in the "advanced" category.

Baltimore civil rights historian Taylor Branch served on the commission and agreed with its findings. Improving the teaching of writing in America is urgent, he said, "at a time when our cars are as big as our classrooms and far less crowded."

Online shorthand stunts writing skills

Bad enough that American kids are terrible writers. Now comes a report that their writing skills are being stunted by computer shorthand. Teens spend an average of 12 hours a week online, often exchanging "instant messages" with friends, according to an America Online survey. (That's nine hours more than they spend on school writing assignments, according to the writing commission.) Such absorption is said to be destroying kids' ability to write properly.

Yo, something else 2 worry about.

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