When The College Board—distributor of several national standardized tests—announced June 27 that its Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) would include a handwritten essay by March 2005, improved writing instruction moved up on the test-preparation agenda for schools from coast to coast.

Although some educators remain skeptical, companies such as Vantage Learning Inc. of Yardley, Pa., report they have just what educators are looking for to help ease the burden of grading student essays by hand. In May, Vantage was selected to provide writing-assessment and development services to some of Massachusetts' largest school districts.

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