School implements new writing goal

By Brian Bickmore
web editor-in-chief

Prompted by what they consider to be subpar test scores, DHS officials have made improving student writing the 2011-2012 building-wide goal.

This initiative, a collaborative effort between educators and administrators, will aim to better a 2011 school writing proficiency rate of just 76%, as determined by the Michigan Merit Exam [MME], a state mandated test given annually to juniors in March.

With proficiency ratings being well above average in all the other tested areas of reading (88%), math (79%) and science (86%), the project will try to equalize the anomaly through a blend of tactics including integrating more writing into the curriculum of all other subjects and holding teacher workshops dedicated to writing skills during professional development days. Additionally, a new drafting philosophy called the 6 + 1 Trait Writing is now being taught. It emphasizes that students should focus on the traits of voice, ideas, organization, word choice, sentence fluency and conventions plus presentation when composing a piece. Prior to the introduction of this, there had not been a defined rubric of what was expected of student writing.

Dawn Moulthrop, lead teacher of the English department, is in favor of the effort and believes being able to write effectively is a necessary skill for the professional world.

“There is no possible detriment to focusing on writing,” Moulthrop said. “Any position will require communication, which is not just oral, but written as well.”

Some infer that DHS’s low writing scores indicate the English department has not been focusing on writing enough since every other subject had a significantly higher proficiency rate. However, that is not necessarily the case, according to Moulthrop. She thinks the low scores can be attributed to written expression being one of the last skills to develop in teens, a claim that is supported by numerous studies.

That claim could also be supported by state MME results. Michigan’s overall writing proficiency percentage is 47%, the lowest of any subject covered on the MME and five percent lower than the next lowest subject’s proficiency percentage. This illustrates DHS is not the only school having trouble in this department, meaning the low scores could be due to Moulthrop’s hypothesis that written expression skills were not fully developed in all the students who were administered the test.

English teacher Karen Martin has a different hypothesis as to why the scores are lower than other areas. She believes the scoring criterion of the MME and other standardized tests is vastly different than the style of writing DHS students are accustomed to using in their English courses. In her classes, she tells students to be concrete and to the point, while MME or ACT style tests often want a ton of detail and elaboration.

“What we want and what standardized tests want are completely different things,” Martin said. “We think we have better writers than what the MME says.”

No matter the reason for the unsatisfactory marks, DHS’s scores will need to rise exponentially soon, but not just so the school can achieve its goal of improving student writing. If DHS and other schools across the country can’t find a way to drastically raise their writing scores, they will face some serious consequences courtesy of the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB says that all states have to reach 100% proficiency in English language arts by the 2013-2014 school year. However, the state of Michigan is currently seeking a waiver from this.

Despite what happens politically with NCLB, the school will still continue its multi-faceted approach to enhance student writing. A major aspect of this is to incorporate writing into every single class, not just English.

Even students in accounting and computer classes, subjects having little connection to writing, can expect to see some change. Business teacher Jonathan Cook intends to include more composition-type activities than in past years, along with more writing integrated into projects and more papers in general.

“There will probably be more impromptu writing that is relevant to content,” Cook said.

Cook added that he will be having scholars write to learn more than they have in the past.

But even some English teachers will be altering their methods. Martin plans on students doing more peer evaluations than in years past to help students recognize what they are doing wrong on a personal basis, rather than her just telling them. Furthermore, she plans to utilize and refer to the 6+1 rubric more often.

Regardless of a student’s teachers’ strategy for adding more writing into their lesson plans, the impact of the building-wide writing initiative will make its presence felt throughout the entire school year.

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