Students' writing scores lower on computer tests

BEND — Bend-La Pine principals and district officials have puzzled over recent preliminary writing test scores showing students who took the online version of a state writing test scoring lower than students who completed a paper version.

Some administrators have suggested various culprits, from a lack of spell-check on the test's word processing program to students writing fewer drafts before turning in the test. But the preliminary test scores raise an issue about teaching writing, spelling and grammar in an age when students spend so much time on a computer. Bend-La Pine Schools Chief Academic Officer Lora Nordquist, who oversees curriculum for the district, said elementary school students still learn spelling and basic grammar in a traditional manner.

"Students in the formative years, we are really focusing on them learning the skills," Nordquist said. "Spelling is absolutely part of their instruction, as is usage and mechanics. ... Most of them are not diagramming sentences, but definitely the focus in elementary school is on teaching fundamental skills."

Part of the reason students study those subjects traditionally, Nordquist said, is limited access to laptops or computers on a regular basis. "That's really primarily at middle school where that begins happening," she said. "And a little of that at middle school is dependent on what the availability of computers is, so it differs a little from middle school to middle school."

When students use computers for writing, Nordquist said they're trained to use tools like spell-check and grammar-check.

"I think we would be remiss as teachers if we didn't do that," she said. "We're not teaching writing for the Oregon state assessment. We're teaching it because it's important to do. In the adult world, all of us make use of these technology tools."

Oregon is offering the state writing exam to high schools in both online and paper-based formats; some middle schools tested the new online format this year.

But the tests have come under scrutiny because some schools around the district and state have reported significant score differences between the online and paper-based tests.

The Oregon Department of Education is planning to analyze the data to determine what, if anything, went wrong, but reports from schools around Bend and La Pine show that students were much less likely to pass the online version of the test.

The tests used the same prompts and were identical. The test scorers are trained to read both handwritten and typed essays.

Mark Molner, a writing teacher at Bend High, said he'd talked to his students about why they thought online scores had suffered.

Students gave three reasons.

One, they said they struggled with proofreading their work on-screen instead of printing their work out and editing it by hand.

"When we're working on a paper in class and we have access to computer labs, all my kids do multiple hard-copy drafts and edit on those, and they're quite successful at that," he said.

Two, Molner said students are accustomed to using word-processing programs that feature spelling and grammar tools.

"They've never used (a computer) that didn't have that," he said. "So they're not as rigorous in their proofreading."

And three, students told Molner they seem to slow down and be more thoughtful when they handwrite a piece.

"I was surprised by that. I thought with word processors they'd start to keep up with their thoughts so they don't lose the thread," he said. "But they said they kind of slow down and think of what they want to say more carefully."

Molner thinks that while spell-check may make some students less inclined to proofread, it is a tool that is here to stay.

"It is going to exist on every computer they're going to use," he said. "People make the same argument about calculators and computation errors.

"But I think part of it is a pragmatic issue. Everything is done on computers."

And since students learn quickly that spell-check has its own quirks and errors, they usually learn to edit their work anyway.

While writing on computers is a part of reality these days, Bend High writing teacher Nikki Baird has seen a rise in writing problems stemming from the amount of time spent online. "We see a lot more problems with students not knowing proper capitalization and punctuation, and that's more of a result of instant messaging and texting and things like that," Baird said. "We're having to go back to get kids to refocus on things they learned in elementary school."

If she didn't have to spend so much time on those writing basics, Baird said, she could get into more sophisticated information like syntax, diction and analyzing authors' styles.

As it stands, her students spend much of their time in class writing with paper and pencil, rather than working on computers.

"I have them do drafts, and I mark different types of errors, and we go back and evaluate what they're doing wrong here," Baird said. "And then we try to fix those mistakes in future drafts."

Baird said that in addition to the time students spend writing informally on instant messenger systems and texting on phones, they also read less, which affects their writing skills. Molner, on the other hand, said he has just as many voracious readers as he did 10 years ago, but he does see texting as having affected his students' writing skills. Baird said student reading is simply different from in the past.

"I do see a lot of kids reading, but they're reading small snippets, quick information focused on Facebook pages. And anything you get on the Internet tends to be short snippets of information as opposed to long, sustained pieces of writing," she said. "They have trouble focusing their attention."

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