Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The "ACT Plus Writing Exam" as a College-Ready Proficiency Standard

Preface: "Nicely said! Yes, we need to ramp up our efforts in writing. It is a quest of mine...and a predictor of college completion."--Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius' reaction to this piece.

Minnpost's recent Mounds View Schools Add a Test That's Worth the Extra Bother provides a bold example of a district helping all its students prepare for a post-secondary education or career using a reliable academic measure.  Given ISD 621 will have 100% of its juniors take the writing portion of the exam, the district could also serve as an important model for phasing out a graduation proficiency assessment administered in the 9th grade.

The basis: No one pretends the currently administered GRAD written composition, as it's known, sufficiently measures the writing skill of a graduating Minnesota senior.  Not writing instructors, or administrative officials-- neither college admissions folks, nor Minnesota's Commissioner of Education Dr. Brenda Cassellius is willing to defend the academic level of the this writing metric.

For a detailed exposition of this point, clear 15 minutes off the calendar, grab a cup of coffee, and sit down to read an ACT Writing Proposal.  Just in case that 5-page journey gets painful, here's the shorthand: discarding the GRAD written assessment for the ACT Plus Writing would reduce unproductive testing, save money, free valuable instructional time, and raise the quality of writing instruction in our public schools.

As MDE Director of Research and Assessment Division's Dr. Dirk Mattson explained: "The GRAD written exam was never meant to be an indicator of college and career readiness."  The main reason for this is because it originally served as a Basic Skills test administered to students attempting to get their GED (Graduation Equivalency Diploma).  Somewhere in the evolution of the state's education policy, the assessment was promoted to being a requirement for all graduating students.

Thankfully the educational jury is not out on the need to strengthen the state's writing requirement.  Like immediate predecessor Republican Alice Seagren before her, MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is in agreement with the need for increased writing rigor: 

"Writing is a key to future life success and college success," the Commissioner wrote.   "Our current writing assessment, in my opinion, is well below the standard necessary for on-going success."  As a result, Cassellius plans to place writing under the purview of a new Test Reduction Task Force, make writing "more relevant to teaching and learning," and "ensure the testing we do gets students ready for college and career."

To this high-level of support for emphasis on writing, fans of the written word can add an opening supplied by the Minnesota Legislature for a rewritten graduation standard.  Article 2, Line 25 of House File 934 (also known as the Omnibus Education bill), which is currently winding its way through the Legislative process "directs an Assessment Advisory Committee to develop recommendations for alternative methods to meet the reading and writing exam requirement, and to consider the CLEP, ACT and SAT."

A Football Metaphor

The best way to depict the situation surrounding the state's graduation writing requirement may be to apply the game of football:
  • Teachers, administrators, policy makers and education officials are very aware of the need for a new writing metric that legitimizes student claims to being "college and career ready."  Essentially, they have issued a "Game On" call to enhance writing quality.
  • In response to this need, the MN Legislature has gone to the effort of creating a field of play complete with goal posts for interested parties to begin making their points.
  • The Mounds View School District is the first team on the field, and with the state's first-ever 100% administration of the ACT Plus Writing exam set to be administered tomorrow, April 27th, it is poised to begin kicking the ball through the "Up-Writes."
  • Now all the rest of us fans of more writing rigor need to do is cheer these good efforts on. 
Note: The Little Red Writing Book is noted for being strong in teaching writing to ELL students.

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