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Schools to take look at bolstering writing test scores

POSTED: January 2, 2009 5:00 a.m.

The number of students who passed the high school writing test dropped slightly in the fall, but the mean scores of students taking the test for the first time increased.

For all students taking the test for the first time, including regular education and special education students, the mean scale score for the county increased from 219 to 220. The percentage of students who met or exceeded standards in the county decreased from 90 percent last year to 88 percent this year.

“What’s particularly interesting about this is that you will notice that the mean scale score at both schools actually increased, but you’ll see the percent of students who met or exceeded decreased,” Arnsdorff said. “What that would tell us is there are a number of students who are taking the test who are scoring very high on the test, doing very well, but that is offset by the students who did not pass the test,” said Assistant Superintendent Greg Arnsdorff.

State law requires that students are given writing tests in grades 3, 5, 8 and 11 annually.

“For grade 11, that is a high stakes test,” Arnsdorff said, noting it is used as part of the state high school graduation test.

Students are given the first opportunity to take the test in the fall of their junior year, and must write two pages on a persuasive writing prompt. If the students do not meet standards in the fall of the junior year they have approximately five times they can attempt to pass the test.

In a persuasive argument, a student takes a position on a topic and uses language to influence the reader to their point of view in the paper. Two readers score the tests, using ideas, organization, style and conventions to determine the score.

Students who score 200-249 meet standards and students who score 250-350 exceed standards on the test. First-time test takers are juniors taking the test for the first time or students who are new to the state and must take the test in order to graduate from a Georgia school.

Arnsdorff explained to Effingham Board of Education members how “regular program students,” those who take no special education courses, performed on the test. Of those students, 92 percent passed in the system, a decrease of 1 percent from 2007.

“When we see a fluctuation of 1 or 2 percent, we don’t get too alarmed,” Arnsdorff said.

There was a greater drop in the percentage of special education students who did not pass the test.

“As with most of our schools and most of the performance tests that we review, our students with disabilities subgroup continue to give us some challenge, and we continue to focus on those,” he said.

Systemwide, 33 percent of special education students who took the test for the first time passed, compared to 43 percent who passed last year.

“The students who take this test, we believe, are attempting to receive a regular education or a non-qualified diploma,” Arnsdorff said. “In the end, whether they are successful in doing that or not depends on if they can pass all sections of the high school graduation test.”

He said students can also request a waiver to consider the individual circumstances and waive a portion of the test from the requirements of the non-qualified diploma.

Arnsdorff said there are several ways the district is working to increase test scores and the passing rate. One of the methods is professional development for teachers.

“There is work currently going on at our high schools regarding vertical alignment,” he said. The work coordinates what is taught each year to let teachers find the areas that need to be addressed. There is hope to have this from the eighth to ninth grades.

Superintendent Randy Shearouse said the writing process can be taught to students.

“(When) you can specifically target those students who need help, we know we will see great improvements,” he said.

Arnsdorff said there is work to be done, and the goal is to see upward trends in scores instead of backsliding. 

He also said use of a predictor test would be helpful. There has been a high correlation between the score of the predictor test, and the score on the actual test. This would allow teachers to work with students in areas that need improvement.

“It would cost the district I believe around $3,000 to assess students in this,” he said.

Curriculum Coordinator Judith Shuman said if a predictor test is used, it would be given at the end of the ninth grade year. The predictor test data would give 10th grade teachers a semester to work with the students who took the exam the previous spring.

“Even if they have an English class in the fall, there’s not a lot of time for that teacher to spend with that student remediating gaps,” she said. “So waiting until 10th grade the data would not provide time for intervention on part of the teachers with the students.

“We feel like if we were to administer a predictor test at the end of ninth grade and assess where students are, what their needs and gaps were at that point, then the 10th grade teachers would have the entire time that they spend with those students filling in those gaps and remediating those skills,” Shuman said.

She said there would be some students who would not be in an English class the fall of the junior year because of block scheduling.

Shuman said the system has taken advantage of the predictor test for middle school, beginning in the sixth and seventh grades.

“After the first year we implemented the predictor test, we did see a 15 percent rise in students who were meeting expectations on the writing test,” she said. “So we feel like it was a very useful investment.”

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