Righting the Writing Process: Improving Instruction with Assessment Tools

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PROMPTED BY THE FEDERAL NO Child Left Behind law and state mandates for improved proficiency in writing and other skills, district leaders have intensified their focus on writing in elementary and middle schools. Many are integrating word-processing software and other technology tools into their curricula to strengthen the instructional and assessment elements of their writing programs, some of which are simply homegrown. Some are piloting the technology in single schools, while others are implementing it districtwide.

Regardless of whether or not products are helping, writing scores are increasing slightly. According to The Nation's Report Card in 2007, average writing scores for students in grades 8 and 12 were higher than in previous assessments in 2002 and 1998. The average writing score for eighth-graders was three points higher than in 2002 and six points higher than in 1998. For seniors, the average score in 2007 was five points higher than in 2002 and three points higher than in 1998.

In Maine, where all seventh--and eighth-graders have their own laptops, wireless networking and Internet access since 2002, the average score on the state writing achievement test in 2005 was 3.44 points higher than in 2000, meaning the average student in 2005 scored higher than two-thirds of all students in 2000, according to the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine. In Maine's Middle School Laptop Program: Creating Better Writers, researchers reported last year that using laptops helped students become better writers overall, not just better writers using laptops. Some administrators and teachers suggest that using outside technological resources that help them develop successful writing programs is driven not just by pressure to improve students' writing but also by the learning environment in which children are comfortable.

Tech-Savvy Students

Students are digital natives and have no fear of a keyboard. "When they move past the paper and pencil, they are willing to spend more time on their writing and it is easier for them to expand on topics and flesh out what they write," says Sue McGuier, a former English teacher who now is county test coordinator in the Ohio County (W.Va.) Schools.

"Kids are really in with the technology. Even 9-year-olds text message to each other. It's their mindset," adds Mae Guerra, who used a computerized writing program, WriteToLearn, last year in her fourth-grade class at Valverde Elementary School in the Denver (Colo.) Public Schools. "]hey have computers at home and they are bored writing on paper. To me, it's important--get where they are, and since even little kids now are technologically advanced, we have to teach to that level to keep them interested," Guerra declares.

To enable teachers to teach to that level, districts are investing in technology that helps students learn the mechanics of writing--spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation and sentence construction--and also how to shape the content of what they write so that they clearly express what they are trying to get across and support it with facts or reasoned statements. Further, the programs include technology that assesses the correctness and quality of what the pupils write and provides instant feedback to them and their teachers.

With the Web-based learning tool that Guerra used--WriteToLearn, a product from Pearson--students practice essay writing and summarization skills, and their efforts are reviewed by automated assessment technology that evaluates their writing by examining whole passages, not just grammatical correctness or spelling.

In her class of 22 mostly Hispanic fourth-graders, 13 of whom were officially classified as English Language Learners, nearly all began the year with "unsatisfactory" scores in writing on the Colorado state assessment. Most students reached the "proficient" level in writing over the first three months of the school year. …