State's Testing Rules Write Off Writing
In 2003, writing scores at Wasco Elementary School near St. Charles dropped dramatically. At the time, each teacher taught writing slightly differently. The staff decided that wasn't good enough.
They adopted a schoolwide writing framework, agreed on common language for teaching writing, dedicated dozens of hours to staff development and devised an assessment to make sure the new approach was working.
Writing scores skyrocketed. In 2003, 41 percent of third-graders met state standards. In 2004, that jumped to nearly 90 percent.
Going on 'terrible academic diet'
"We really took this to heart," said Principal Dave Abhalter. "We took a hard look at our data and decided we better develop an entire model of writing for our building."
This year, writing scores improved statewide in all grades, with the largest gains in fifth and eighth grades.
Many educators worry that may be as good as it gets.
State testing won't cover writing this spring -- along with an end to social studies testing, which has largely been flat over time. The state says it can't afford to test in these areas, and those subjects don't count under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Only math and reading count. This comes as the ACT and the SAT add a writing exam this spring.
"They're going on a terrible academic diet statewide," said Barbara Radner, director of the DePaul Center for Urban Education. "High schools are saying for the first time that students come in knowing what an essay is, what a paragraph is. Ten years from now, they'll be saying they don't know what a paragraph is, what an essay is. It's almost a climate shift."
Many principals insist that won't happen.
"You can't afford to de-emphasize writing -- writing and reading are a natural set," said Patricia Wells, principal at Chicago's Franklin Fine Arts Center, where fifth-grade writing scores jumped 36 percentage points this year.
Abhalter isn't planning any changes, either but admits he may be in the minority.
Not a test subject? Forget it
"There is a lot of pressure regarding No Child Left Behind," Abhalter said. "Obviously, many districts will try to look good in the areas assessed by the law.... But when pieces are dropped out [such as writing], that can mean those things will [be] overlooked."
Past behavior confirms his fears.
As states added writing to their testing menu over the last 20 years, there was a corollary increase in writing instruction, said Tim Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former head of the Chicago Public Schools Reading Initiative.
"Writing scores have really gone up, and that's most likely due to the fact that school districts are teaching it and paying attention to teaching it better," Shanahan said.
With no more testing, that's likely to end, Shanahan said.
When he urged Chicago Public Schools teachers to cover topics that weren't covered on state tests, they balked.
"They were afraid it would distract them from raising test scores," he said. "Writing will be one of those issues. 'Why am I doing this? It won't make me look better.' "
Contributing: Art Golab
Kate N. Grossman
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