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School board hopes to improve students' writing

Superintendent will see teachers work into plans

POSTED: April 24, 2014 6:00 a.m.

Following a report at Tuesday’s Liberty County Board of Education work session by Dr. Jennifer Walts, the system’s new coordinator for evaluation, assessment and accountability, education leaders discussed steps necessary to improve students’ writing skills.
Walts was introduced as LCSS’ new “data machine” by Dr. Mary Alexander, assistant superintendant for student services,
“Across the state, (writing assessment) scores declined by 2 percent in 2013,” Walts told Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee and board members. “However, in Liberty County, scores dropped from 81 percent to 72 percent, which is a significant decline.”
On her first day on the job, Walts reported that scores from this year’s elementary and middle-school Criterion-Reference Competency Tests were not available for her to analyze. However, she was able to discuss the data from a statewide writing assessment taken by eighth graders in January.
She said 808 LCSS students took the test, but only 805 were scored. The tests were scored by independent raters on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being a perfect score. Students’ writing was evaluated based on their ideas, organization, style and convention, Walts said. She explained that convention includes proper grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure.
Walts did a comparative analysis, pointing to a PowerPoint presentation chart that broke down the scores by subgroups — gender, ethnicity and special-needs students. She noted that girls outperformed boys and, over all, more African-American students failed to meet the minimum standard than white students. She said 82 percent of special-needs students failed to meet standards.
“(Special-needs students) are our most fragile learners,” she told board members. “We are not where we want to be. This is obviously an area we want to focus on.”
Walts suggested several causes for the lower scores. She said the state has increased its writing standards, and results from employer surveys report the skills high school graduates are missing are the ability to communicate — both orally and in writing — and the ability to work in groups. She concluded by noting that writing skills and thinking skills go together. She then strongly urged education leaders to work together to plan for more rigorous writing instruction.
Lee agreed and said there could be no progress in any school system without first addressing assessment data. She reminded board members that the CRCT is essentially “out the window,” replaced by Common Core standards. Prior to Walts’ presentation, Alexander told board members that the depth of knowledge under the new Common Core standard is much higher. She said teachers will be required to fill out forms for every course taught to determine student learning objectives for each section of that course.
“Students have to answer more open-ended questions,” Lee said, suggesting children also will face new expectations. “They have to have the mechanics and conventions of writing down in order to communicate.”
Board member Carolyn Smith Carter asked how teachers would be made to comply with new requirements. She said she fears many teachers simply will say, “I don’t have time for this.” She asked Walts and Lee how they plan to convince teachers to make these necessary changes.
“What’s happening with SLOs (student learning objectives) is, we’re giving teachers a way to measure how they’re doing,” Walts said. “(Still), before you make major changes, you’ve got to convince teachers there’s an urgency.”
Lee agreed and told the board she is glad to be the superintendent but assured the members that she also is “the good, the bad and the ugly” when it comes to enforcing new standards. She said she will explain why the school system has to make these changes and then ensure every teacher incorporates writing into his or her lesson plans.
“Those numbers alarm me,” board member Verdell Jones said. “As a board member, I support everything y’all are doing. We must do it. This is what we do. We educate. I’m so glad we’re in this data-driven position. We’re talking about the well-being of our community.”
Other agenda items discussed during the work session included new technology coming to each LCSS classroom, including iPads for every student, and several information reports. Board members also approved two action items pertaining to  out-of-state travel and the student code of conduct.

 

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