Guest opinion: Statewide effort improves college entrants’ writing skills

2010-02-28T00:05:00Z Guest opinion: Statewide effort improves college entrants’ writing skillsBy SHEILA M. STEARNS The Billings Gazette
February 28, 2010 12:05 am  • 

In his Jan. 24 guest opinion, Dr. Woodrow Jensen challenged readers to “think of a statewide, major reform or innovation, fully implemented, resulting in significantly greater or different student achievement for the majority of our students.” The Montana University System Writing Assessment (MUSWA) is celebrating its 10th anniversary this spring, testing juniors in 135 high schools that voluntarily participate in this major reform designed to improve student achievement in writing. Between 2001 and 2009, the percentage of juniors who place into college-level composition courses, rather than remedial courses, has risen from 38 percent to 71 percent — a remarkable success story.

Through this reform, the Montana University System has built a network of educators who develop and administer the exam for 80 percent of the state’s high school juniors. Beginning Feb. 1 each year, nearly 9,000 students from throughout Montana, from schools as large as Billings West to those as small as Whitewater, start testing. They have the option of using traditional test booklets or an online Web site.  Both options are free to the student. The scoring process begins when 50 or more academic leaders join for intensive two-day training sessions. They in turn conduct training for approximately 320 teachers at eight regional sites throughout Montana, who collectively score 9,000 essays, each of which must be read by at least two scorers.

By April 20, most Montana high school juniors will know if they are college-ready in writing. The  MUSWA is the most widely used of three possible tests (including ACT and SAT) that place traditional students into their college composition courses. Many will anxiously await the “Letters of Recognition” reserved for students with top scores. Some, whose scores do not pass muster, will buckle down during their senior year and retake the test, hoping to improve before going on to college.

Dr. Jan Clinard in the office of the commissioner of higher education has led this reform effort. She works with a steadily expanding group of colleagues in the Office of Public Instruction, teacher education programs, and high school English departments. Student writing continues to improve.

When this project began, many high school teachers did not know what kinds of writing would be required of their students upon entry to college and how college instructors would grade that writing. Now, not only do teachers have a better understanding of how to teach writing, their school districts support them in professional development for improving writing instruction. Research on the strengths and weaknesses in student writing and information for high schools about their particular challenges continues to grow.

Looking for an example of significant and successful reform? The university system’s annual statewide writing assessment for high school students, a collaborative secondary-postsecondary project, is an innovation that has resulted in significantly greater student achievement.  That’s the kind of reform that matters.

Sheila M. Stearns of Helena is Montana commissioner of higher education.

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