Write On, Wisconsin Officials Tell Students- And They Do

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"Terry Wendall turned the channel on the television from his bed (He had a remote control.) His bed was littered with magazines, food wrappers and rumpled blankets. He comfortably laid within this pile of garbage.

"Terry's mother, Wilma, appeared at the door with her husband, Montgomery. She whispered to him.

"'Look at him. He's entranced by that box.' She began to whimper 'Oh, Monty, we have to stop this madness!' She let out a loud sob."

This is an excerpt from a story ranked as one of the best efforts of 11th-grade students in a recent statewide assessment of writing skills in Wisconsin. The tests of writing ability, given last spring to 4,254 students in grades five, eight, and eleven, marked the first time that Wisconsin education officials used writing samples to evaluate students' mastery of written English.

In the past, state assessments of writing relied mainly on multiple-choice tests of grammar and usage. In most states--about 40, according to a survey conducted in 1979 by Wisconsin officials planning the writing tests--officials still rely on multiple-choice tests to gauge students' writing ability.

The scores on the writing tests, released last month, suggest that some students lack important writing and organizational skills, according to state officials. However, the scores also indicate that between grades five and 11, students grew more skilled in both areas, according to Russell Allen, supervisor of the Wisconsin Pupil Assessment Program.

The tests, developed by a group of 100 Wisconsin educators, varied for the different grade-levels. Fifth-graders and eighth-graders wrote a story and a report about the moon; 11th-graders wrote a persuasive essay and either a story or a letter of application for a job. Each exercise was completed within one class period.

On one of the exercises--for fifth-graders and eighth-graders, it was the report; for 11th-graders, the essay--students revised their6work several days after the original effort.

In the story-writing exercise, in which students were shown a photograph of a burning house and asked to write about it, about 53 percent of the fifth-graders, 68 percent of the eighth-graders, and 82 percent of the 11th-graders scored above the "bare or confusing narrative" level.

To grade the exercises, trained readers, mostly English teachers or graduate students, used two indices, which officials termed "primary-trait scoring," and "holistic scoring." The cost to the state was $3.28 per student, according to Mr. Allen.

Primary-trait scores, which could range from a low of one to a high of four, were based on how well the writer fulfilled the assignment rather than on his or her grasp of language. For example, if the assignment asked that the writer give directions on how to get from one location to another, and someone who followed the directions ended up in the right place, then the writer succeeded.

The second method by which the samples were judged, holistic scoring, compared the papers written by students in one grade withel35lone another. Using scores that ranged from a low of one to a high of eight, the graders selected "anchor" papers that represented each of the eight levels of performance. (The quoted sample, which was part of a story about a house fire, scored an eight.)

According to the primary-trait scores, students found it more difficult to write a report about the moon than to create a narrative about the burning house. Eleventh-graders had more trouble with the persuasive essay than with the other exercise.

In the report exercise, students were given a list of facts about the moon, and asked to organize them into a report.

About two-thirds of the fifth-graders received scores of one or two on this exercise, indicating that their work was rated either "not a narrative" or "a bare or confusing narrative" by the graders.

Eighth-graders, given the same exercise, scored higher: 56 percent received a three or four, which means their writing was either "an elaborate narrative," or "a fully elaborated narrative."

The 11th-graders did not write about the6moon, but instead were directed to write an essay that would persuade the school board to make a change to improve the school. About two-thirds of the students scored three or four, both acceptable scores, according to state officials.

Scores for the 11th-graders who wrote letters of application rather than stories about the burning house tended to be at one end of the grade scale or the other, according to state officials.

Many of those who received the lowest score on the letter did so because they neglected to include a return address or a telephone number where a potential employer could reach them. Those students whose score was high, however, exceeded the requirement and gave the imaginary employers extensive information about their qualifications for the job.

In addition to providing test results to teachers and students, state officials also conducted a study of the students' revision of the report or the persuasive essay. Students in the fifth grade tended to perceive revision as "recopying," Mr. Allen said, while students in the eighth grade revised more, but the changes were mostly superficial. Eleventh-graders revised the most, Mr. Allen said, but the result was sometimes worse than the original piece.

Vol. 01, Issue 09

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