These two pieces of writing were among those released by the Michigan Department of Education as examples of student work and how it was scored on the fall 2006 English Language portion of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. Both pieces are from the third-grade test, which asked students to read two stories and then answer this question: “Do the children feel good or bad at the end of the stories? Why? Explain your answers using specific details and examples from both ‘The Hill’ and ‘Iris and Walter Are Friends.’ Be sure to show how the two selections are alike or connected.” The third-grade test also asked students to edit sentences for such things as spelling, structure and capitalization. The complete test and released items from other grades are available at
Good writing scores are hard to come by in the Michigan
Educational Assessment Program, but a few school districts are producing
students who are the exceptions.
While reading and math scores generally improved on fall 2006
MEAP tests, the number of students who met or exceeded writing expectations fell in four of six grades tested. In addition, writing scores generally trailed reading scores by 10 to 40 percentage points, particularly in early grades.
But Okemos Public Schools, near Lansing, and Vanguard Academy, a
charter public school in Wyoming, Mich., have better news to report. Michigan
Education Report talked with Patricia Trelstad, assistant superintendent at
Okemos, and Valerie Masunas, eighth grade English teacher at Vanguard, about
their schools’ respective scores, which bested the state average by as much as
30 percentage points in recent years.
A number of factors contributed to the numbers, each said, but
common to both schools are an emphasis on writing in all classes, teacher
development, a writing curriculum and time spent specifically focused on
"If you look at our School Improvement Plan, all schools … have
writing as a school improvement goal. It’s a focus in all of the buildings,"
Trelstad said. At the high school level, "all staff in the building have made a
commitment to write with students. People understand that kids can’t just write
in language arts class. Writing is a focus in a broad sense in Okemos."
Similarly, when Vanguard students are asked to write a paragraph in math class about a mathematical concept, they are graded not only on how well they understand the math, but on how well they explain it, Masunas said. The school requires non-language arts teachers to assign writing projects, she added.
This approach of "writing across the curriculum" not only allows
a school to spend more time on writing, but also demonstrates that writing is
important in all fields. It is also one of the recognized ways of improving
writing skills, according to Dr. Gary Troia, a Michigan State University
associate professor who studies writing instruction and assessment.
Another similarity between the schools is the use of the "6
Traits" approach — a model that identifies six specific traits that are
characteristic of good writing — for at least some writing instruction. The
traits are "ideas and content," "organization," "voice," "word choice,"
"sentence fluency" and "conventions." Developed at the Northwest Regional
Educational Laboratory, a private, nonprofit organization in Oregon, the
original model came from teachers looking for a way to evaluate writing
consistently and objectively. Today the organization sells books and related
material for classroom use.
"I’ve absolutely fallen in love with it," Masunas said. Writing
— and grading of writing — is often seen as subjective, but supporters say the
Six Traits approach helps make writing instruction concrete and specific.
Students understand that if they are studying "organization," they are likely to
be graded on such things as transition or closing sentences.
This process also matches up well with what Michigan expects of
its students, Trelstad and Masunas said. When a teacher focuses on one of the
six traits in the classroom, he or she can expect that the same trait will be
measured in MEAP testing. The MEAP scoring system says student essays are
evaluated for "ideas and content," "organization," "precise word choice" and
"mastery of writing conventions," among other things.
Other Michigan districts have found that using curricula with
specific writing objectives has improved test scores. An article in the Toledo
Blade said that teachers in Monroe County’s Bedford Public Schools reported
higher MEAP writing scores after the district began using the CraftPlus writing
program. Similarly, Niles teachers told local media that the CraftPlus writing
program helped one of their elementary schools earn a designation as a Michigan
Department of Education Blue Ribbon Exemplary School.
Still, a helpful curriculum isn’t enough, educators said. MSU’s
Troia said there is little empirical research to date to show that any one
curriculum boosts writing scores, although he agreed that a methodology that
provides concrete, specific feedback to students about their work is "very
"Sometimes people want a magic program," Trelstad said. "The
magic program in education is the teachers."
Teachers in Okemos who want to become better writing instructors
might take extra training voluntarily, or they might be sent by a building
administrator, she said. They might join other teachers in buildingwide
professional development programs.
"Professional development is greatly supported by our
administration," echoed Masunas. Vanguard teachers have attended writing
workshops sponsored by the Kent Intermediate School District as well as
workshops in the Six Traits method.
TEACHERS AS WRITERS
Not all teachers feel as confident in their own writing as they
do in reading or math skills, and that may show up in their instruction, Troia
"Many teachers don’t consider themselves to be quote, unquote,
writers," he said. "They may not write poetry, for example, or keep a journal.
They often feel ill-equipped to take on the role of (writing) mentor for
students. … I think that’s one reason why teachers may feel writing is more
difficult to teach."
Consequently, teachers may teach less of certain forms of
writing, like poetry, even though for some students poetry may be the best genre
for motivating them to write, he said. The National Writing Project is
attempting to address that issue, he said, by offering workshops across the
country that help teachers develop as writers, not just as teachers of
Another MSU educator, Fred Barton, used to be a case in point.
"I was trained as a literary critic," he said of his own
undergraduate coursework. "The idea of composition as a field of study isn’t
that old." Teachers who are now mid- to late-career educators are less likely to
have studied teaching methodologies for writing than today’s teacher candidates,
"Students (in teacher preparation programs) coming through now
are getting exposed to both reading and writing instruction much earlier than I
was," he said. Barton is coordinator of the Learning Resources Center at MSU and
previously taught in public and private schools for more than 30 years. He also
is president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English.
At Hillsdale College, students in the teacher education program
are expected to become good writers themselves as the basis for teaching writing
in the future, said Jon Fennell, director and associate professor of teacher
education. Fennell said he is skeptical of technology or curricula that claim to
improve writing, saying the teacher’s own skill level is more important.
"Was that teacher taught grammar? Did that teacher actually
write a lot? Did that teacher receive careful oversight of her writing?" he
In his own class, Fennell has introduced an assignment that
requires students to write an essay. It’s only a one-page essay, he said, but
each student must rewrite it until it meets Fennell’s expectations.
"The record last year was 13 drafts," he said. "I think that
student learned something about how to write."
The number of parents looking for writing tutors has increased
enough to prompt Sylvan Learning Center, a national tutoring services company,
to expand its writing program to include second- and third-graders next year,
according to Emily Levitt, program manager for writing.
"We are seeing so many elementary students coming to us," she
said, particularly as more states implement standardized writing tests in lower
"Our two biggest parent concerns are spelling and organization,"
she told Michigan Education Report. "I think those are two things that are easy
for parents to spot."
At the other end of the age spectrum, the company also sees a
growing number of high school students who want an edge on college admission
essays. More colleges and universities are requiring students to complete the
essay portion of the ACT test, she pointed out.
"Some students feel pretty comfortable with the SAT or ACT, but
they want to know how to write for the test. They’re looking for strategies,"
Levitt said. "We also have some students who really need writing help from the
Time is another issue in writing instruction.
"To teach writing well is a very labor-intensive thing," Barton
said. "In today’s economy, that sort of thing is at the top of the line in
likelihood of being cut."
According to data collected in 1998 through the National
Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly seven in 10 teachers said they use a
"process-oriented approach" to writing instruction that includes brainstorming,
research, writing and rewriting, Troia said. But only one-third of those
teachers said they spend 90 minutes or more a week on writing instruction.
"That would suggest the process is very truncated," he said. "It
doesn’t give students time."
Teachers in Okemos tell Trelstad that, "It’s harder to fit
everything in. There’s more to teach now."
At Vanguard, elementary students have focused writing
instruction three days a week, each time with a core teacher and two assistants.
That allows the teacher to group students by skill level, with each group
receiving individual help, Masunas said. The middle school schedule is organized
in 90-minute blocks, effectively giving students more time to write.
"You have to practice to be a good writer," said Levitt. Sylvan
writing tutors — all certified teachers — focus on common school writing
projects, such as compare-and-contrast essays and descriptive writing. Grammar,
spelling and other conventions are worked in as part of the process, she said.
But even among potential tutors, Levitt said, she has found some who prefer not
to tutor in writing.
"I was really surprised to find how many aren’t comfortable
teaching writing," she said.
Research shows that students benefit from extensive and focused
feedback about their writing, Troia said, but "for secondary teachers who often
teach 120 to 150 students, it is overwhelming to them." The volume of paperwork
is only part of the problem, he said; another is that in some cases teachers are
able to recognize weak spots in student work, but don’t know how to describe the
weakness in ways that can help a student improve.
"That’s one reason teachers may find it easier to give feedback
on conventions," Troia said. So rather than explain to a student why his or her
argument is not persuasive and offer concrete suggestions for constructing a
better argument, the teacher might focus on spelling errors or run-on sentences.
"There’s nothing more laborious than having to read those
papers," Fennell said, but the alternative is fewer writing assignments and
fewer opportunities for students to practice. As that cycle repeats itself,
students end up at college without the ability to write effectively, he said.
MEAP CHANGES AHEAD
The MEAP writing test will change next year to include five more
multiple choice questions, according to Ed Roeber, senior executive director of
the Office of Educational Assessment and Accountability in the Michigan
Department of Education. The current test asks students to write one essay in
response to a selected reading and another in response to a prompt. The
third-grade test in 2006, for example, asked students to write about "being
responsible." In addition to the essays, it included five multiple choice
The challenge is to develop a test that reliably assesses
student writing ability at a reasonable cost in time and money, he said.
"The shorter the test, the less reliable it is," Roeber said.
But asking students to write another MEAP essay would increase the test time and
the cost to score it. The writing portion is already MEAP’s most expensive
component, he said. Each essay is read by a scorer who has been trained on
sample essays and gauges the student’s work against established guidelines. The
scorers are monitored as they work for "drift," or the tendency to stray from
the guidelines, he said. That might happen if, for example, a scorer reads
several exceptional essays in a row and then holds the next essay to a higher
standard than called for by the guidelines. When scorers drift, Roeber has the
option of retraining them or, if the problem continues, letting them go.
At the lower elementary level, 20 percent of the essays are
scored a second time by a different individual to check for congruence among
scorers, he explained.
Writing scores on assessment tests tend to be lower than in
other subjects partly because students "can’t guess at the answer," Roeber said.
"They’ve got to produce it."
The state’s primary role in teaching writing is to set
expectations and explain them clearly to teachers, said Betty Underwood, interim
director of the state Office of School Improvement. "As far as going out and
working with individual schools, we don’t have the capacity to do that."
Many intermediate school districts have literacy specialists on
staff to work with local districts, she pointed out, and some also publish
sample lessons or guidebooks that "pull together what we call ‘promising
Educators say the MEAP writing scores don’t necessarily tell the
whole story on student ability.
"As with any assessment, (MEAP) is one piece of information on
one day," Trelstad said. A poor writer might do well on the MEAP if the given
topic is something they know and like, she said. Conversely, she added, teachers
have had cases in which they ask themselves, "How did this kid get a 3 on the
MEAP? He’s my best writer."
"I think the MEAP has its limitations," she continued. "It’s one
tool we use. … It sometimes isn’t reflective of what a child has to offer."
"Grading writing is very subjective," Masunas said. "The MEAP
does not give us a full picture. We’re just hoping that the rubric we’ve been
told to use is the rubric the graders are using."
Troia and Barton both said that reading and math receive more
attention and resources under the federal No Child Left Behind Act than does
writing, because those scores weigh more in determining whether a school
district is making "adequate yearly progress." Title I schools that fail to make
AYP for a given number of years are subject to consequences that include
providing tutoring or arranging for children to attend another school.
"It is certainly the case that NCLB privileges reading and math
over writing," Troia said. Professional development is more often dedicated to
reading, math and science than to writing, he said, as are efforts to align the
local curriculum with state content expectations. "I think that’s why we’re
seeing these high-profile reports emerging."
Among those reports are "The Neglected R," by the National
Commission on Writing, and this year’s "Writing Next." "The Neglected R,"
presented to Congress in 2003, recommended that the amount of time spent on
classroom writing be doubled; that states reevaluate writing expectations; that
each school district be required to have a writing plan; and that every
prospective primary and secondary teacher learn how to teach writing, regardless
of their discipline.
"Writing Next," commissioned by the Carnegie Corp. of New York
and published by the Alliance for Excellent Education, stated, "American
students today are not meeting even basic writing standards and their teachers
are often at a loss for how to help them."
"I would suspect that writing is going to get a lot more
(research) emphasis in the next few years," Troia said.
As schools look for ways to improve writing skills, Barton said
it would be a mistake to narrow the emphasis to predefined, "measurable" skills
at the expense of creativity. Some of that happens already, he said.
Measurable skills are easy to pick out and to evaluate, like
whether a paragraph has a topic sentence or how many supporting details a child
uses in comparing two stories, Barton said. It’s more difficult to evaluate
whether that child is developing "voice," which Barton said is equally
"So much emphasis on assessment and accountability tends to
drive creative things right out of the classroom," he said. "Having been a
writing teacher, I know often you have good writers who are … inhibited by those
formulaic structures. … The five-paragraph essay certainly does have its values,
but I tell my kids those things are like training wheels. Sooner or later the
training wheels have to come off."