Grissom column: Hard work on writing pays off

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 6, 2008

By Judy Grissom
For the Salisbury Post
The significance of teaching and evaluating writing skills continues to be debated at the state level. Among several national studies on the importance of writing skills is a new survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the National Commission on Writing. The study indicates that eight in 10 parents agree that writing skills are more important now than they were 20 years ago. Eighty-six percent of high school students indicate that they believe good writing skills are an important component of success in later life ó personally and professionally.
Good writing skills are a critical part of the Rowan-Salisbury School System’s mission to empower students to meet high academic standards and compete regionally, nationally and globally. During this past school year, much emphasis, training and support has been provided to teachers and students to address their writing skills. That extra time and effort certainly had its rewards when the school system’s writing scores were released last week. Whether the school system moved closer to the state average is unknown at this point, but when comparing the scores to how the students performed last year and in the past, there are many reasons to celebrate and congratulate our students and school system staff.
Elementary schools
At the elementary level, there were 61 students who scored a Level 4, the highest level possible on the writing assessment. The school system has never had so many top scoring students in the history of the writing test; in fact, there have never been more than 29 students with Level 4’s, and that score was achieved last year. Fourteen of our 18 elementary schools showed improvement (Shive did not have scores from last year for comparison), with seven schools exceeding 15 percent growth. This year was the first time any school has been over 80 percent proficient. Congratulations, China Grove Elementary!
To what can we attribute these improvements? This year the elementary schools’ instructional staff began implementing Writing Workshop, a yearlong writing curriculum developed by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues from the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project. Teachers developed and reinforced writing skills during the year through units of study with mini-lessons. Teachers, teacher assistants, principals and assistant principals received similar training in the features of writing and understanding of the rubrics so that the continuity of curriculum could be shared.
Fourth-grade students took a mock writing test last fall to experience the setting in which they would be assessed in the spring and to provide teachers with feedback for any needed additional writing instruction. Elementary curriculum coaches were trained by state department trainers in Raleigh on how to score and improve fourth grade writing. The coaches developed notebooks in grades three and four with specific activities for developing features in writing.
Middle and high schools
All but one middle school showed growth on the writing assessment. This year was the first time a middle school has been over 60 percent proficient ó West Rowan Middle School. There have been no level 4’s in the last four years of testing; there were five students who scored a level 4. The largest amount of growth was seen at the high school level. Every high school improved by more than 15 percent, with the school system improving overall at the high school level by 24.1 percent. The largest increase was at South Rowan High School with a 35.7 percent increase. The school system has not had more than four high school students to ever score a level 4, but this year nine students achieved that score.
What were some of the changes at the middle and high school levels in writing? A mock writing test was administered in the fall to seventh and 10th graders, which was used for scoring training for all seventh-grade Language Arts teachers, 10th-grade English teachers, EC teachers and curriculum coaches. Middle and high school curriculum coaches were provided opportunities to attend writing workshops and trainings. They incorporated skills and strategies from these workshops in ongoing training to all middle and high school teachers. This training included cross-curricular writing prompts with rubrics to guide the assessment. Each middle and high school developed a writing plan to address the diverse needs of their student populations.
While much of the credit for these improved scores goes to the students who took the challenge to improve their writing skills seriously, I cannot praise our school system employees enough for their hard work and effort. We have truly dedicated staff that care about our students and want them to be successful in the future. They go above and beyond the call of duty on a daily basis to improve their students’ academic performance.
Whether the State Board of Education keeps or eliminates the writing tests, the Rowan-Salisbury School System will continue to emphasize and reinforce writing with our students. We feel it is a needed skill for the 21st century!
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Dr. Judy Grissom is superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School System.