Reading & Literacy

Respected Journal Rates Student History Papers

By Lynn Olson — March 14, 2001 4 min read
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Students who excel in mathematics and science can participate in numerous competitions that bring their skills to the attention of college admissions officers, but that’s been less true in the humanities. Now, a respected national journal has set up a process to read and rate high school history papers so that they, too, can be included in students’ college-application packets.

For More Information

More information is available from the National Writing Board, 730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24, Sudbury, MA 01776.

In 1998, The Concord Review, a quarterly journal that publishes outstanding history papers by high school students, set up the National Writing Board to read and rate students’ research papers against an international standard. (“History Journal Gives High School Students a Showcase,” June 16, 1999.)

Last year, for the first time, reviewers read 32 papers submitted by students from 15 states and Manitoba, Canada, and sent the results to 26 colleges for consideration. Will Fitzhugh, the editor of the Sudbury, Mass.-based journal, hopes to generate more interest this year.

To date, 16 colleges and universities have agreed to accept the ratings, including such leading institutions as Dartmouth College and Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale universities.

“The humanities are very important to us,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard University’s dean of admissions and financial aid. “This gives us a way to see an additional piece of information to identify people who might be unusually promising humanists.”

“I hope this ... will stimulate students to think about careers in the humanities,” he added, “but also just simply to fall in love with the idea of writing and analysis because it will help them throughout their lives.”

An ‘Unbiased’ Look

This year, the National Writing Board, offered as a service of the nonprofit Concord Review, sent 10,000 brochures about the program to 5,000 U.S. high schools.

Students can submit papers in two categories: short (around 2,000 words) and long (around 5,000 words) with endnotes and bibliography. Each paper is read by two senior high school history instructors and evaluated according to criteria developed by the board.

The papers are rated on the use of historical sources; thinking and understanding; elaboration or use of evidence; writing or use of language; and the overall success of the paper. Each paper receives two sets of written comments and an overall score of 1 to 6, from “very poor” to “superior.” If there’s a difference of more than 1 point in the two readers’ ratings in any category, a coordinator will adjudicate.

The scores and comments are sent to the student, who then decides which colleges should receive them. Both the authors and the colleges receive both sets of scores, in addition to the overall rating. Students pay $65 per paper, which includes the cost of sending the reports to three colleges. Additional reports cost $5 each.

Because the readers do not know the name of the author, only the title of the paper and its length, “they’re unbiased in a way that teachers can’t be for their own kids,” Mr. Fitzhugh said.

The board has raised about $88,000 from private foundations and individuals, including the Starr Foundation of New York City, the Albert Shanker Institute of Washington, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation in New York City, and the Earhart Foundation in Ann Arbor, Mich.

An Incentive To Write

In addition to looking at the scoring protocols for the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, Mr. Fitzhugh said he based the evaluation criteria on more than 13 years spent reviewing student papers from 32 countries around the world.

Most of the reviewers are history teachers whose students have regularly submitted papers that have been accepted by the journal.

Victor W. Henningsen, the chairman of the department of history and social science at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., an independent school, was a reader last summer. He said that reaching agreement about the quality of students’ writing was “not that difficult.”

“There were some outliers,” he said, “but you do that often enough that you get a sense of where the group is.”

The high school teacher predicted that it would take a while for the project to get off the ground and to cope with logistics. At his school, for example, students don’t turn in their research papers until the end of the school year, which makes it difficult for them to meet a June 15 submission deadline.

But he argued that the idea is important. “There’s no substitute for the thrill that comes from choosing a topic of your own,” Mr. Henningsen said, “and wrestling with a mass of evidence to answer a question that you’ve posed to craft your own narrative and your own analysis.”

“We’ve been teaching kids to write research papers here for a long time,” he added. “Kids don’t remember the Advanced Placement exam, but they do remember the papers that they’ve written, and so do I.”

Mr. Fitzhugh said he began the project “to provide an external incentive to encourage teachers and kids to spend time on research papers.” Students also can take Advanced Placement courses and tests or participate in the International Baccalaureate program, he noted, but the National Writing Board provides another option.

“I have a very strong feeling that every kid should have that experience before they leave high school,” he said of writing a paper. “My dream is a ‘page-per-year plan,’ so by the time they’re a senior, every single high school student has written a full-fledged research paper about something, where they have to read, write, and rewrite.

“I think that experience is an icebreaker,” he continued. “It shows them that they can do scholarly work at some level.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Respected Journal Rates Student History Papers

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