Writing results across the province have been one step up from abysmal since the Grade 2 provincial writing assessment was introduced.
It is one of the few assessments where you’ll see schools score less than 20 per cent — even zero — meaning none of their students are writing at an appropriate level.
But a closer look at how the assessments are scored may give parents and future employers more hope than the numbers warrant.
Elizabeth Nowlan, a District 2 learning specialist in K-12 math and assessments, had members of the District 2 Education Council participate in a little exercise with her at their recent meeting.
Nowlan handed out a sheet with the six writing traits evaluators are looking for along with two sample pieces of writing from Grade 4 students. One was clearly an appropriate, even strong, piece of writing, the second was imperfect, but still seemed a good effort for a Grade 4 student.
However, as Nowlan took DEC members through the piece they found that at least one, if not two, of the traits were missing.
In order for a piece to get a passing grade it must demonstrate all six traits: content, organization, word choice, voice, sentence structure, and conventions (proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, and capitalization).
“We’re looking at the necessity of having all the children have all of the traits and that is really 100 per cent proficiency. We’re not looking at 100 per cent proficiency in any other subject area, so it is a high standard,” says Katherine Arsenault, the district’s early years learning specialist.
But Arsenault says the traits were chosen specifically as being things a good piece of writing should have.
“A good piece of writing isn’t good if there is a big portion of it that isn’t there,” she says. “We do need to look at all of those elements.”
Arsenault says a good number of the students who did not score in the appropriate category in the 2007 assessment were just one or two traits off, meaning their skills just need a little more work.
She says Grade 2 students, in particular, often have difficulty mastering all of the traits at one time in one piece, though they will show them in different samples of writing throughout the year.
“So it is encouraging in that sense, but we do have some work to do,” she says. Although the standards are high for both reading and writing, Bobby O’Keefe, a senior policy analyst with the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS), doesn’t believe they are any higher than they used to be.
“I think in a lot of cases, there are a lot of demands beyond school on kids attention and that is part of the problem, ensuring that things like literacy are of prime importance for learning at this point,” he says. “And the education system in general, there seems to be more and more demands placed on the system, perhaps not at the youngest levels, but as an example, making healthy food choices is something that is getting downloaded to schools… It’s less a case that standards are getting higher, but we are adding things to take away attention from the three Rs, so to speak. Years ago they focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. Now there are so many things competing for the same time and attention.”