Students’ writing skills were in the spotlight in early April, as a new report suggested that an increasing number of U.S. students understand the basics of writing. And one of several possible reasons for this trend could be the growing use of writing software tools among educators.

Results from the latest writing test administered as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, show that average writing scores were slightly higher in 2007 than in previous writing assessments in 1998 and 2002. Though the percentage of students performing at or above the basic achievement level also increased since 2002, the percentage of students who met the "proficient" level did not.

The test was given to eighth- and 12th-graders nationwide last year. Students had to demonstrate narrative, informative, and persuasive writing skills.

Overall, eighth-grade scores rose modestly from the last time the test was given six years ago. The proportion of kids scoring at or above the basic level rose from 85 percent to 88 percent. At that level, students show they can use grammar, spelling, and punctuation that are accurate enough to communicate to a reader, but there might be mistakes in their work that get in the way of its meaning.

The percentage of eighth-graders at or above the proficient level–which policy makers call the goal–was unchanged from 2002. About a third of eighth graders achieved the "proficient" label.

State and federal efforts to improve education have focused intensely on poorly performing students in recent years, said Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based education think tank. He said the trend helps explain why more kids can now handle basic writing, while there has been no growth in the percentage of top achievers.

"It’s good news that the lowest achieving kids are seeing some gains," he said. "The problem is, in a competitive world we need to pay attention to all of our kids, including those at the top."

Nationally, the percentage of 12th-graders scoring at or above the basic level showed a more dramatic jump, rising from 74 percent to 82 percent from 2002 to 2007. That kind of progress hasn’t generally been seen among high school seniors in other subjects, said Mark Schneider, commissioner of education statistics at the federal Education Department.

One possible reason for the solid improvement in 12th-grade writing might have to do with the SAT exam. A writing portion was added to the college entrance exam in 2005, and since then teachers report greater focus on writing in their schools, according to a survey by the College Board, which runs the SAT.

There was no increase, similar to the results for eighth-graders, in the number of 12th-graders working at or above the proficient level since 2002. About a fourth of 12th-graders are considered proficient writers. At that level, students know how to write a clear introduction and conclusion, among other things.

"Writing is a fundamentally important task," Schneider said. "We still have a long way to go, but American students have gotten better."

Software can help

As part of the greater focus on writing instruction in classrooms, several educators have turned to online or software-based writing programs for help in identifying and addressing students’ weaknesses.

The nonprofit group Teaching Matters has invested more than $2 million in the development of Writing Matters, a comprehensive middle-school writing program that integrates technology to support student writers in grades 5-9. The program gives teachers free online access to a private or public publishing and collaboration space for their classroom. The complete program includes genre studies written by notable authors, story-based animations focused on writing strategies, detailed lessons for new teachers, and learning-management and web-publishing tools. The program is supported through comprehensive professional development.

The program pays special attention to the particular needs of boys, and it was piloted in more than 60 schools under a three-year evaluation. Schools from more than 30 states are already using the free tools, which give teachers significant control over how student writing is published to the class, to the school community, or to the public at large. 

One of the challenges that educators face in teaching writing skills is that students need frequent practice to improve. But it takes a lot of time to read several student essays and provide feedback. That’s where the latest software programs, using artificial intelligence to assess students’ writing abilities, can help.

Two high schools in Minnesota are using Pearson Education’s WriteToLearn to help students build literacy skills and prepare for the new Minnesota writing assessment.

The schools are Dunwoody Academy High School, a new technical charter school in north Minneapolis administered by Dunwoody College, and Robbinsdale Cooper High School, part of the Robbinsdale Area Schools in New Hope, Minn.

With WriteToLearn, students practice essay writing and summarization skills, and their efforts are measured by a "Knowledge Analysis Technologies" (KAT) engine. The KAT engine is an automated assessment technology that evaluates the meaning of text by examining whole passages, not just grammatical correctness or spelling.

"WriteToLearn is an awesome program that gives each student feedback right away, which is something a teacher cannot possibly have time to do," said Duane Dutrieuille, dean of academic and student affairs at Dunwoody Academy High School.

Dunwoody Academy, which offers eight-hour days and a 210-day school year, provides career-focused training in four industries–automotive, construction, health care, and manufacturing–as well as core subjects for its 150 students. Reading and writing skills are vital parts of the curriculum, said Dutrieuille, and WriteToLearn is an important tool in improving student achievement.

"Our students now know what to write and understand the structure of a paragraph.  They’re gaining skills and confidence and are really enjoying using WriteToLearn. I would recommend it to any school," he said.

At Robbinsdale Cooper High School, which serves more than 2,000 students in grades 9-12 in a northwest suburb of Minneapolis, ninth-graders are just beginning to use WriteToLearn. Teachers and administrators say they’ll use it to prepare for the state writing and reading assessments and have high hopes for success.

"We’re excited about the possibilities," said social-studies teacher Jill Kind. "The immediate feedback for the students will be great, as well as the knowledge we’ll gain. We’ll be able to see areas where students need help, so we’ll be better able to individualize instruction."

Earlier this school year, language-arts teacher Michael Jenkins started using WriteToLearn with his students at Estancia Middle School in New Mexico, and he’s already seeing changes.

"Lights are going on, and they’re excited about learning," he said. "When I say it’s time to go to the computer lab, they jump up and go, and I have no problem keeping them on task." He added that during a recent visit, Estancia’s superintendent was surprised to see that the students were so immersed in WriteToLearn, they didn’t even notice when the dismissal bell was about to ring.

California’s Palm Springs Unified School District is investing more than $800,000 in Vantage Learning’s MY Access!, an online writing program that it plans to implement throughout the district over the next three years.

"Research shows how effectively [more frequent] writing increases achievement across the curriculum," said Superintendent Lori McCune. "Our teachers are looking forward to seeing not only improvement in written communication, but higher levels of achievement in all subjects they cover in their classrooms."

To use MY Access!, students write an essay based on a teacher’s assignment and submit it to the web-based system. MY Access! analyzes more than 350 semantic, syntactic, and discourse characteristics, scoring students on focus and meaning, organization, content and development, language use and style, mechanics and conventions, and overall writing proficiency. The ratings of these elements are combined into one score on a scale of one to six (or one to four, as determined by the teacher), which appears on the screen.

"Writing is one of our most difficult areas to master," said McCune. "Oversized classes at the secondary level make it difficult for teachers to read a large volume of individual student work critically; [we feel] MY Access!, combined with effective professional practices, is the solution."

She added: "With the quick feedback it provides on a one-on-one basis, students reach a higher level of proficiency before they even turn anything in to the teacher for review. This program is a natural extension of an educator’s expertise."

A Hartford, Conn.-area high school has received a state grant to implement a web-based writing program that school officials say will help the state understand how technology can be used to enhance writing classes.

The program, Criterion, from the Educational Testing Service, has students compose essays and papers via an online word processor, and then evaluates their writing skills according to organization, structure, and grammar.

The software can pinpoint class-wide, common mistakes by collecting data from the entire class. It also has a context-sensitive writer’s handbook with additional definitions and lessons on grammar, word usage, mechanics, writing style, and essay organization and development.

Links:

2007 National Writing Assessment

Writing Matters

WriteToLearn

MY Access!

Criterion