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STAAR writing tests challenge area students

By Melissa Greene mgreene@news-journal.com
July 7, 2013 at 11 p.m.


Almost half of East Texas students failed the writing portion of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test this spring, and today many have a chance to improve those scores.

Results of re-testing statewide, though, indicate many will fail to do so.

Preliminary results released in June by the Texas Education Agency show almost two of every three Longview and Kilgore sophomores failed the English II writing exam this spring, while about half of local freshmen who took the English I writing exam did not score satisfactorily.

Despite those numbers, most East Texas districts surpassed the state's 48 percent passing rate.

Fourth-grade students in Spring Hill performed best in the region for writing, with about four out of five earning a satisfactory grade. At the seventh grade level, Hallsville tied the state passing rate of 70 percent, while Spring Hill topped it. But overall, about one-third of East Texas seventh-graders did not meet the passing rate.

When mathematically projected, reports by the TEA show fewer than one-third of students will pass the test when the final phase-in of those standards is complete in 2016.

While students may take the exams as many times as needed to pass, those numbers have educators scrambling to discover a cause - be it the teaching or the test - as well as a solution.

"It is a cause for concern, and we are addressing those concerns and making improvements," Longview ISD spokesman Adam Holland said in June.

In addition to re-testing on English I and II, thousands of Texas students today will be retaking other exams they must pass in order to graduate. The others are algebra I, biology and U.S. history.

<h3>Doing the math</h3>

More than 152,000 Texas students recently failed the English I writing test. Data from the last round of retakes show less than 14 percent of those students passed - and some were taking it for the fourth time.

Texas spends about $8,400 per student, $3,000 less than the national average, according to a report issued earlier this year by the National Education Association. That includes a five-year, $468 million contract through 2015 with Pearson Assessments to provide testing to Texas students.

Nancy Votteler is an associate professor of reading at Sam Houston State University and director of the Sam Houston Writing Project that serves teachers by helping them find ways to teach students to be better writers and learners. A four-week writing institute is held at Sam Houston for teachers, focusing on the writing process and teaching how to write.

"Writing is a craft, and it takes time to practice that craft," Vetteler said in an email response to questions. "Teachers that I've talked to say they don't have time because … their priority is getting students ready for 'the test.' "

Academic performance standards represent the degree to which students are learning the content of a subject. There are three degrees for the STAAR exam: Advanced, satisfactory and unsatisfactory. To pass the exam, students must score satisfactory, level II.

Writing is tested in fourth and seventh grades under STAAR, and is an end-of-course exam for high school English classes. Students are expected to write at least one essay at each grade level, as well as revise written statements and edit a variety of text, according to STAAR guidelines.

Essays are graded on a scale by two independent graders who each assign a number of one through four - one point represents "a very limited writing performance," while four points is an "accomplished writing performance." Those numbers are averaged, and a grade assigned.

Pearson Testing, with which state officials signed a multi-million dollar contract to administer the test through 2015, is responsible for grading the exams.

Dictionaries must be available to students taking the exam, according to the TEA.

Under the previous standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, students were required to write a two-page essay. STAAR requires 26 lines, and comes with a written warning at the top of the page: "You can write less but not more, and don't write outside the lines."

"I asked a group of middle school students to tell me all they know about writing and their answers (were) … 'something that is done in school,' and 'writing is only 26 lines,' " Votteler said. "There is no connection to learning by writing. I asked them what they thought about the idea of 'writing is thinking on paper,' and they really had no clue what I meant."

Votteler said she believes incorporating writing into other subjects rather than teaching it alone is detrimental to students.

"Many teachers may see writing as teaching grammar or teaching handwriting, but real writing takes time," she said. "Real writing is messy and the process of writing, unlike math, is not linear."

Teachers are getting creative, literally, when it comes to ways of involving students in writing.

<h3>Enforcing standards</h3>

Kilgore ISD second-grade teacher Andrea McGilvray said last week that second grade is the year handwriting is taught and enforced.

"My job in regards to writing is making sure their ideas can be translated into complete thoughts," she said. "They have dabbled in it in first grade, but I have the opportunity to take it a little bit further."

McGIlvray's students publish their writing in a book as part of a semester project.

"Toward the end of the year, my class does a huge research project which targets multiple writing state standards. After working for weeks, we actually publish the students' stories into a real book. The kids get so excited about being real authors."

"Writing helps us communicate better, and it is the new workplace currency to our global economy," Votteler said. "Writing is becoming the norm of how we communicate with each other, and writing well for different audiences is very important."

Though recent legislation trimmed the number of EOC exams, English I and II remain but in an altered form - beginning next spring, they will be combined into one exam, taken in one day.

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