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Spell-check use on writing exam prompts debate

Spell check will be activated for use as an allowable resource for the 2010-11 Oregon Statewide Writing Assessment.
Spell check will be activated for use as an allowable resource for the 2010-11 Oregon Statewide Writing Assessment.

A decision by the Oregon Department of Education to let students use a computer spell-check feature when taking an online version of the state’s writing exam this year has raised some concerns among stakeholders, prompting a larger discussion about what skills students should be tested on in the digital age.

State officials say the move comes after consulting with local school systems and education technology experts, and they argue that it’s a natural evolution that more accurately reflects how students compose essays today—and how they’ll continue to write via computer once they move on to college and the workforce.

To some critics, however, the decision spells the end of society as we know it.

KTVZ-TV in Bend, Ore., reports that, beginning this school year, state officials will allow students to enable the spell-check feature in the writing assessment software used to test students online.

State education department staff met with school district representatives this summer to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of enabling the feature, which had not been previously allowed.

Issues included the increasing use of computers with spell checkers for communication in the workplace, college, postsecondary training, and the military. Also discussed were the effects of such a change on the “conventions” portion of a student’s score and how to provide equity for students using the paper-based test.

Based on this discussion and input from state education department staff, the following changes to Oregon’s online writing assessment will be implemented this year for grades seven and high school:

1. The spell-check feature will be activated for use as an allowable resource for the 2010-11 Oregon Statewide Writing Assessment.

2. To make sure the testing process is fair for all students, those taking the paper-based version of the exam will be allowed to use a dictionary or enter lines of text into a word processing application that has an enabled spell-check feature; if students are generating their full essay on a word processor and then copying it into a test booklet, the automatic spell-check feature can remain enabled throughout the writing process.

The test asks students to write an essay in response to a prompt, KTVZ reports. Their writing is judged on six traits, including organization and sentence fluency.

Conventions—which includes spelling, capitalization, and similar features that spell check can detect and fix—is the single most important element in a student’s score, with the conventions score reportedly counted for twice as much as any other trait.

The decision to enable spell check prompted quite a response to KTVZ’s report, with several readers slamming the decision in online comments.

“So let me get this straight,” wrote one reader on the TV station’s web site. “They’re going to score these tests with a heavy weight on spelling and capitalization, etc., but then give the students a program that corrects these things? Wouldn’t the logical thing be to reduce the value of those categories for scoring purposes?”

Another reader wrote: “Our educators keep setting the bar lower and lower, when they should be raising the standards. America’s already losing it academically, folks, and unless we set world-class educational opportunities and expectations for our young people, it’s going to be pretty sad for them and the country.”

The decision is “more an acknowledgement of modern reality,” said a state education department spokeswoman. Giving students a spell-check tool during the test helps to replicate the real-world conditions and resources that students will experience in college or in a career, she explained, adding: “We’re just taking our students into the 21st century.”

Students will have the ability to activate the spell-check mode on the statewide assessment by clicking on a spell-check icon on the response screen. Once in the spell-check mode, the feature will highlight all misspelled words and give the student a list of alternate spellings. This is not an auto-correct feature, state officials noted; students still will be responsible for selecting the correct option and proofreading their essay for errors.

Oregon offers the state writing exam to its high schools in both online and paper-based formats; some middle schools tested the new online format last year. But the tests have come under scrutiny because some schools around the state have reported significant score differences between the online and paper-based versions.

The Oregon Department of Education is analyzing the data to determine what accounts for the discrepancies, but reports from schools around the state show that students were less likely to pass the online version of the test last year.

The tests used the same prompts and were identical, and the test scorers are trained to read both handwritten and typed essays.

One theory is that students taking the online version of the writing test are skipping a crucial proofreading step. Those taking the paper-based exam compose their essays first and then copy the completed version into an official test booklet—an action that helps students review their work.

Officials worry that the online test might cause students to focus more on keyboarding than on things such as word choice, sentence structure, and critical-thinking skills.

Students also said they said they struggled with proofreading their work on-screen instead of printing out their work and editing it by hand. Enabling the spell-check feature could alleviate this problem, officials say.

Spelling is still important, the state education department spokeswoman said, but officials want to make sure it doesn’t detract from other, higher-order thinking skills. The department’s goal “is for the Oregon state tests to accurately predict how prepared students are for college and careers,” she concluded.

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