September 11, 2008
Writing in Schools Isn’t Left Behind
By Emily Krone
Writing tests don't determine whether schools earn passing or failing marks under high-stakes accountability laws, but local educators continue to fight to keep writing a priority.
It's an uphill battle as schools increasingly devote more time and resources to reading and math - and it paid dividends in state scores reported on a key national writing exam that had Illinois eighth-graders outperforming most of their peers around the country.
"I think that's something we can be pretty proud of," said Sonya Whitaker, director of literacy and social science at Schaumburg District 54. "We didn't abandon writing just because it wasn't being assessed, but we had to be creative."
In 2003, a report by the National Commission on Writing called writing "the neglected 'R,'" warning that decades of school reform movements had focused on reading and arithmetic, to the detriment of writing.
The federal No Child Left Behind Law exacerbated the trend, threatening schools with costly sanctions if they fail to meet standards in reading or math - but not in writing.
Many Illinois educators responded to the shift in emphasis by weaving writing instruction into all subject areas, particularly math and reading.
"It's a necessity because of (No Child Left Behind) that the major emphasis is on reading and math," said Jan Booth, a fifth- grade teacher at Sycamore Trails Elementary School in Bartlett and a consultant for the Illinois Writing Project.
"But those of us who have been in the game long enough know other pieces are important, too, so we continue to try to become more creative in blending and integrating writing into reading and math," Booth said.
The cross-discipline movement is more than just a way to sneak writing into the curriculum.
Indeed, teachers say, writing and reading are inextricably linked.
"The two go hand-in-hand," said Susan Kajiwara-Ansai, a literacy coach for Chicago schools. "If anything, those who use writing as a vehicle for getting kids to understand text have more success."
Writing promotes higher-level thinking in all subjects, said Cathy D'Agostino, an English teacher at New Trier High School in Winnetka and a writing consultant for the College Board.
"Teaching writing is hard," D'Agostino said. "It takes a lot of work, and it's chaotic, but it's essentially what teaches kids to think, and it needs to be taught in every subject."
Increasingly, science, math and social science teachers ask students to keep journals, which can provide a more complete picture of how they understand the material.
"It can alert them to what students didn't understand," D'Agostino said. "It becomes writing to learn, and students are more invested and more engaged."
Amid fears that the intense focus on math and reading test scores would compromise learning in other subjects, writing scores hit new highs on the 2007 test taken by 8th- and 12th-graders nationwide.
The average 2007 eighth-grade writing score increased three points from 2002, the last year the test was administered. The average 12th-grade score increased five points. Both were on 300- point scales.
Students from 199 public and private schools in Illinois took the test, known as the Nation's Report Card. Results were released last week.
Illinois eighth-graders outperformed or matched the scores of their peers from 41 of the 45 participating states and jurisdictions. Twelfth-grade scores were not broken down by state and local schools do not report their specific results.
But the gains on the national writing test speak to the improvement in writing instruction during the past five years, said Mary Ann Smith, director of government relations for the National Writing Project.
The scores also demonstrate how far writing instruction needs to go.
In Illinois, just 37 percent of eighth-graders scored as "proficient" or above in writing. Fifty-three percent scored as "basic," and 10 percent scored below the basic level.
D'Agostino said she's seen the need for improved professional development while touring the country as a writing coach.
"At workshops, the teachers tell me they never had a course that taught them how to teach writing, so they feel very incompetent," she said. "We need to have more teachers who know how to teach writing. It's an area that's been grossly neglected."
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