Friday, August 25, 2006


The annual embarrassment of the release of the statewide writing assessment mandated by the Nebraska Education Department is on again. It was Page One news in The World-Herald Thursday, with a "helpful" bar chart reflecting glory on Omaha-area districts Gretna (96.7), Douglas County West (93.5), Millard (93), Bennington (93) and Elkhorn (92.7) for all "scoring" above the 90th percentile.

Doesn't that sound like the kids in those districts all got "A's"? Doesn't it seem like Omaha-area schools are doing a fantastic job teaching writing? Doesn't it bolster the belief that the "rich" kids are easier to teach and doing great, while the "poor" kids in the Omaha Public Schools (78.5) are harder to teach and need MORE money to catch up?

Yeah. Right. You don't find out 'til the jump to the inside page, buried several paragraphs down, that the score in the bar chart reflects how many kids had scored a C+ or above.

Let me say that again: you and I think a score in the 90's in a Page One chart that's labeled as reporting student writing "proficiency" means the average score was in the 90's -- an A.

But the State of Nebraska has determined that "proficiency" is the same as C+ work.

And I've seen these writing samples, People. C+ work is pretty awful.

See how we're left with the wrong impression?

Look. External examinations are great. I'm all for having students' writing samples scored by someone other than their own teacher. It's an important accountability tool and can be very good for feedback.

But, as I've reported before, the actual quality of the writing is much worse than these scores reflect. You can verify that with a quick trip into the classrooms of any of these schools. I've had lifelong school-district rah-rah's come up to me, saucer-eyed, to tell me that all these years that they thought I was a crackpot and ranting and raving unfairly about poor writing instruction in these schools, and then they were asked to score senior projects or took a goosey gander at kiddie writing samples on the halls of their school one day -- and saw how rotten these kids write and spell these days.

Sad to say, but this assessment and these scores are meaningless.

If we still want to try to have a statewide writing assessment, then to make it meaningful, two things must happen:

1. Truth in reporting results so that the public knows what's being measured and what the statistics mean.

2. Publication of several random samples of student writing that are scored as high, medium and low quality, so that parents and the public can grasp the truth about how poorly many students write whose work is scored as "proficient."

Until those things happen, this is just a waste of time and puts needless stress on teachers. It's "funny numbers" make-work and propaganda. Can I write it more clearly than that? Don't think so.

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