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NCLB Outrages

About half of students pass N.C. writing test

Less than half of North Carolina's students passed this year's state writing exams, officials announced Friday, a setback in their efforts to boost confidence in the heavily criticized test.

North Carolina has been hailed nationwide as a pioneer in testing, but designing credible writing exams has been a struggle.

Earlier versions were blasted for subjective scoring and for not penalizing mistakes in spelling and grammar. A startling slump in 2002 prompted officials to disregard the results.

Coming after such a rocky history, this year's low performance made some educators question whether to believe that half of the state's students are poor writers. And the scores will likely have consequences because they will again count in the state's evaluation of schools.

Scores earned by 10th-graders will help determine whether high schools meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. With less than 48 percent of sophomores on grade level, it will likely be harder for schools to hit the federal benchmarks.

"It's disappointing," said Jane Norwood, a Charlottean who is vice chair of the State Board of Education. "What we need to do is look at our curriculum and look at the test and try to make a determination in where the problem lies."

Writing is harder to test than other subjects, experts say. Kids get no choice in what to write about -- the test has only one question, called a "prompt." And the test-makers must try to choose prompts that don't vary in difficulty each year, and that all students are equally able to answer.

The scrutiny of the N.C. test comes as schools nationwide have started to focus more on writing. Colleges have complained that too many high school graduates write poorly. Many teachers have replaced multiple-choice exams with essays that demand more analysis. And in March, the SAT added an essay to the test used for college admissions.

This year's pass rates for fourth-graders rose 10 percentage points to 49.3 percent. Seventh-graders saw a slight increase, to 46.7 percent, and 10th-graders dropped nearly 5 percentage points.

Last year's writing exams were trials that weren't taken as seriously statewide, however, making Friday's results the first meaningful data, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Assistant Superintendent Susan Agruso.

She cautioned against condemning the tests based only on this year's scores.

"We have higher-standard tests," Agruso said, "and we have work to do with our kids so they can meet that standard."

Much of the work has begun. CMS is bolstering efforts to train teachers and perform quarterly assessments. Kannapolis City Schools launched a team to make grammar a more consistent part of the curriculum. And the state will soon provide schools with copies of what students wrote so they can see why kids didn't score higher.

"There may be teachers that do a wonderful job of providing writing instruction," said N.C. testing director Lou Fabrizio. "But they may not be providing opportunities for the students to do an on-demand writing assignment."

Superintendents in Iredell, Burke and Lincoln counties questioned how the tests get evaluated.

"You can't tell me teachers across the state aren't doing a good job of teaching writing," said Burke County Schools Superintendent David Burleson. "I don't think (scores) need to count until we get a handle on what the problems are."

— Peter Smolowitz
Charlotte Observer


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