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Report: Virginia students toward the bottom in writing

When compared to students across America, Virginia's young writers have some work to do.

NoRedInk — a comprehensive writing program launched in 2012 that is now used by more than 50 percent of school divisions, including Loudoun — has issued its first year-end report on student progress across the nation. The Old Dominion ranked 38th.

NoRedInk analyzed 3 million U.S. students in grades 5 through 12 who answered one billion questions in 2017 to measure their writing skills.

“We’re hoping that spawns conversations about what schools can do to help their students become stronger writers,” Founder and CEO Jeff Scheur said.

According to the report, Virginia’s grammar and writing “superpower” is correctly identifying when to use then versus than. Additionally, 83 percent of students in Virginia can correctly identify whether a statement is a fact and opinion, but less than 55 percent can detect whether those opinions are undefendable, indisputable or worthy of debate.

Students in Virginia are right at the national average, 52 percent, when it comes to using logical reasoning in an argument, and 79 percent can recognize wordiness, but less than 35 percent can correct it. Virginia students can recognize active and passive voice 67 percent of the time but can only form sentences in each voice 21 percent of the time, and fewer than 30 percent of students can cite evidence correctly.

Nationally, the two biggest weaknesses students have are correcting dangling modifiers and forming active and passive voice sentences, Scheur said.

During the past 10 years, students’ writing proficiency has decreased significantly, according to NoRedInk data. The average ACT essay score is just 6.9 out of 12, and 75 percent of middle and high school students in the U.S. are below proficient in writing.

The decline can be attributed to several factors, including budget cuts in many public schools, less individualized instruction and a change in the essay portion of standardized tests, which are now harder and focus more on critical thinking skills.

“The curriculum navigates students through a scope and sequence of skills in increasing complexity,” Scheur said.

NoRedInk aims to help millions of students in grades 5 through 12 become better writers. Its adaptive curriculum guides learners through the writing process, provides instant feedback, enables strong revisions through a skill-based peer review platform and delivers actionable performance data to teachers and administrators.

Scheur created the program while he was teaching high school English in Chicago. He wanted a way to engage students with writing while also being able to track their progress. Teachers and school districts can compile data on student progress straight from the program and then make instruction more individualized based on a student or class’ needs.

“Because our mission is to help unlock every writer’s potential, an important step in that process is understanding where students need our help,” Scheur said. “By looking at the areas in which students struggle, that has informed where we can build exercises that have more scaffolding to help develop the skills that students need.”

Students learn individual grammar skills like comma and apostrophe usage, as well as higher-level critical thinking skills needed in longer writing. NoRedInk offers exercises at the sentence, paragraph and passage level and the material can be adapted to fit student’s interests.

For example, if a student likes Harry Potter, passages will be about the book’s characters, or if they prefer to read about local sports, they may be editing and constructing sentences about Kirk Cousins instead, Scheur said.

Loudoun and other Virginia school systems were among the first to use the program because it aligned with SOL tests and improved writing scores, Scheur said. The program also helped unaccredited schools improve writing scores in order to receive a state accreditation.

The program’s growth has been organic, with teachers sharing it with others. As it continues to grow, Scheur hopes to expand to different forms of writing and help students gain a myriad of skills.

Comments


1965, do you object to using textbooks? Worksheets?


What’s wrong with my previously submitted comment?


Your argument took a steep nosedive the second you started using terms like “smarter” and “slower” to address individual student needs.  “Textbooks?”  “Worksheets?”  Seriously?


One more point in reference to Loudoun1965’s arguments.

If I’m trying to coach a basketball team whose players don’t possess the basic skills, should I try to teach them advanced plays while taking mini-breaks (“mini-lessons” in 1965’s language) to teach them how to dribble, pass, block out, shoot, etc?  That is a recipe for disaster.  “Direct instruction”, in which you first teach the player how to perform the basic skills with much practice, is more efficient.  In fact, it’s the only plausible way to teach players how to run team plays which require some mastery on individual skills.  The plays come afterwards, as a capstone, to direct instruction on the skills.

The same goes for school.  We must teach computer engineers the concepts behind search algorithms, pointers, procedures, objects, etc. first.  Only then does completely a coding project make sense.  Same goes for math, science or really anything.  In fact, note that 1965 bemoaned the poor grammar skills because Ed schools apparently only teach grammar as a mini-lesson amongst the other topics instead of using direct grammar instruction.


Loudoun1965, with all due respect, your comments show how teachers are woefully uninformed about their own industry.  Virtually everything you do today is based on Common Core, but you don’t appear to even realize it.  Let’s review the timeline for CC and LCPS:

2009: Realizing state standards were too lax, educational and business leaders developed Common Core, simply a set of standards (not curriculum) for English and math only.  CC is designed so that if a student meets the standards throughout middle and high school, he/she will be prepared for freshman year of college.

2011: US Dept of Education forces states to make their state standards meet a minimum rigor.  They could either implement Common Core (designed to meet that rigor) or improve their existing standards like Virginia did with its SOLs.  State stdized test scores plummeted (Mississippi previously reported 95%+ passing, for example, a complete joke) including in Virginia due to the harder standards.

2011-2015: nearly every educational curriculum provider has developed their materials based on the Common Core standards.  The new SOLs are even proxies for CC as they can be mapped to them almost 1:1.  The computerized programs used by LCPS, including iReady and MAP, print out which CC and SOL standard each question is based on.  Teachers give out worksheets in their instruction with “Common Core Worksheets” printed on the bottom.

2015: LCPS hires Cynthia Ambrose from South Carolina, a state that had implemented Common Core and complied with the US Dept of Ed reqts.  She was shocked that Virginia and LCPS had lied about their compliance and would get out of Dodge within 2 years.  However, before she left, she set out to have LCPS actually buy and distribute textbooks to students (a practice abandoned for ~10 yrs) and to implement growth assessments using the NWEA’s MAP tools.

(NWEA’s Measure of Academic Progress is a computerized tool that assesses students on Common Core standards.  Since the assessments can be given throughout the year, students progress can be monitored continuously.  NWEA archives millions of student scores so it can develop its own metrics similar to VAMs or SGPs.  Such growth scores can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of curriculum, districts, schools and yes, teachers.)

2016: LCPS, under Ambrose’s leadership, began focusing more on individualized instruction.  Contrary to what teachers tell the public, teachers are not “customizing lesson plans to each student”.  Rather, students are allowed to watch best-of-breed lectures/animations on computers, practice with examples, and take mini-tests on those computers to determine their mastery.  Students that learn quickly can advance without waiting for the slower students.

Which brings up 2 main points:

1. Individualized learning is not much more than tracking students based on their aptitude.  Smarter students learn faster, regardless of the material, than slower students.  If students were grouped by ability, teachers could teach those students in the same class at the same pace and we wouldn’t need every kid to have their own computer program.  Also, if teachers had been showing students the best animations and lectures from master teachers to begin with, we wouldn’t need individual computerized programs either.

2. David Coleman was instrumental in developing Common Core.  He now runs the College Board and has transitioned the SAT from a quasi-IQ test into a Common Core knowledge test.  So your suggestion that Common Core will be dropped just shows how little you know about what’s going on in education today.


The intent of PBL is to lean toward individualized instruction.  Each student is given a problem to solve over a period of time, (a quarter, semester, or year) and incorporate mini-lessons which address the content from the state requirements and mesh that with the project.  Beyond school, this is how most of the real world works in that an employee must incorporate a variety of skills to solve an encompassing problem or objective.  If the individual skills are addressed as the project comes together, the work is accomplished while the skills are being learned and applied.  A reflection at the end of the project is used to verify what was learned and what was problematic. 

Individualized curriculum is coming and is necessary.  A skilled teacher is going to have to recognize strengths and weaknesses among each student and tailor the learning paths 24 different ways for each class.  The days of preaching at the pulpit are long gone; diversity of instruction to reach each student in an multitude of presentations is now the teacher’s secondary responsibility after differentiating individual expectations within the class room.  Where PBL fits in is in the goal setting for the project, which can be tailored by both the student and the teacher simultaneously to address needs determined by previous assessments like SOL scores which have been disseminated into learning targets.  Effective teachers can address the mini-lesson on content at a variety of levels, and students are assessed in a variety of ways much like the differentiated questions on the SOL test.  Many tools in pre-assessment track student progress during the test to move them forward and determine individual pace and placement.  In other words, everyone gets the same first question, and the second question is determined by how each one answers the first. 

PBL and Individualized Instruction are effective if the teacher knows how to use the tools available to implement them.  They are not going away any time soon.  Only time will tell if they help or hinder SOL performance, but time will also tell how long SOL’s stick around.  I see Common Core going first, but both seem to hinge on political decisions rather than what’s in the best interest of students.

Student “growth” is determined by periodic assessments on the SOL skills throughout the year, and those who demonstrate a lack of “growth” are offered remediation throughout, either during, or before and/or after school.  That part of the process is voluntary and is often considered secondary to sports and busy parents.


John M, suppose these teachers were not merely ineffective but were inappropriately touching kids or treating SpEd kids with contempt.  Would folks still sweep this under the rug?  These ineffective teachers destroy kids’ hopes and dreams.  Your kids and my kids will be fine because we can teach them what the teachers cannot, but these horrendous teachers often end up teaching those disadvantaged students with nobody to speak for them.

As I told Debbie Rose at an LCSB meeting, when these proud admins finally meet their maker (don’t pretend to know their religion), how will they explain putting the “rights” of ineffective teachers over kids?  How can other teachers who know this is going on sit by and support the current system protecting this malpractice?  Why shouldn’t we call this what it is - evil?

Loudoun1965, good information but I think you dodged the question.  SOL scores play zero part in teachers’ evaluations.  The scores come back after their evaluations are completed.  In fact, raw SOL scores shouldn’t play a part since we don’t know how prepared, or talented, the current batch of students are.  That is why we need growth (how much progress the student made) scores and we need to use them.  Without an objective score, “horrendous” teachers as John M describes are never removed (LCPS has a 99.51% effective rate, say what?!)

While teachers may be videotaped, those are not shown to other teachers.  Thus, new and struggling teachers never get to see the examples of Loudoun’s best.  That is malpractice by the administration.

Good teachers have always taught kids to think and weigh the validity/usefulness of information.  That occurs whether I am supporting my premise in an essay or answering a multiple choice question about whether the author properly supported his thesis.  Project-based learning (PBL) is just a buzzword and gimmick to give LCPS admins something to tell the public.  It’s ironic that you lament the lack of direct instruction on grammar but then laud PBL which necessarily entails covering less material as you allow students to “explore” on their own.  Good teachers have always supplemented direct instruction with capstone projects and Socratic questions.  We simply need to hire and retain (and pay) the best teachers rather than focusing on giving those that return the next year with a heartbeat a 7% raise.


SGP: I’ve always had the feeling that Principals often “protect” their bad teachers if they are friends, just like any other work place, or they move them on to another grade, then another school if they are either really bad or not worth protecting. Probably easier moving them on than out. I know a story about one math teacher at Farmwell Station MS, who had been moved over from another school and had changed grades, then one of my kids had her and she was horrendous. The front office staff even acknowledged that she gets the most complaints from students, parents and other teachers. The front office folks were happy to tell us how the teacher had been passed on from another school and will likely be moving on again soon- as soon as a taker could be found.


Actually, the way instruction works in conjunction with SOL testing is to combine the curriculum guidelines with the previous year’s SOL scores to plan quarterly lessons.  The focus is the content, and the instruction is guided by how the students tend to perform and look at weak areas.  Inference in both fiction and non-fiction is one area, and structural analysis is another for reading non-fiction.  The teacher’s job is to parallel the mandated content with the question types on the SOL test so that the students can use the information to answer the questions, which means a lot of time is spent on question answering strategies.  A good teacher presents the material in such a way that the students need to investigate how to solve a problem rather than being fed information they will later need to regurgitate on the test.  Thus, project based learning has replaced the old test and essay assessments.

SOL scores are used in evaluation of teachers in that they are expected to be implementing the problem solving strategies when they are observed, and they are often video taped doing so in order to see strengths and weaknesses in methodology. 

Teachers do have the option to eliminate cell phones from their classrooms, and most schools have access to labs and notebooks in order to use tools such as Google Classroom to enhance submission of projects.  Cursive won’t help, but students do have difficulty with manual note taking using paper and pencil and spelling is a train wreck thanks to texting protocols they have adopted in place of what they learned in keyboarding class. 

The writing SOL is based on two tests:  An essay from a prompt, and an M/C test where they have to correct errors in a given essay or find the best way to re-write a sentence or paragraph.  The problem is, direct instruction in grammar has gone by the wayside and has been replaced by students using their own writing to improve their grammar, which if done w/out direct instruction, makes no improvement in their writing.  Direct grammar instruction is not taught in most college education programs today, and that is a shame.  Ask any English teacher who graduated within the last ten years how much time he or she spent on grammar.  The crickets will speak for themselves.


We SHOULD get rid of cursive writing in schools, but they haven’t done it yet.

And the “historical documents” argument in favor of teaching cursive is ridiculous.  Any document worth mentioning has already been digitally transcribed, translated into dozens of different languages, and posted on the internet countless times.  There’s very little chance of that knowledge being lost, its more secure than ever.


Loudounperson, that’s an interesting anecdote about your PA relatives. I have one also. My LoCo-graduated daughter goes to college in PA and is finding that she has been exceptionally well-prepared for college compared to her PA-schooled classmates.
I would be interested in knowing how students/schools were selected for this survey. I heard nothing of it from my currently enrolled LCPS student.


wwwebbs, you are mistaken on the SOLs.

In 2010, the federal gov’t realized many states were using tests anybody could pass.  They forced all states via funding strings (against the desires of states like Virginia) to modify their std tests to emphasize the application of skills and not regurgitation.  Thus, one reason the math scores dropped around 2012 wasn’t because students were asked to memorize more formulae but because the students had to APPLY their skills to novel problems they would see in the real world.  The same goes for the English and writing tests.  They have to make sense of passages.  Many on here demonstrate they lack such skills.

However, we can agree that many teachers don’t understand how to teach and believe focusing on repetitive drilling will work.  It doesn’t.  If you want to find proof of this, looks at the Gates Foundation MET study.  Research has consistently shown that effective teachers focused on concepts obtain short and long term gains from their students.

Most folks on here at least have an example they can observe to see how to perform their jobs.  Teachers don’t.  Nobody gives them videos of the best teachers in LCPS. (the admin could identify who those teachers are by analyzing the results of growth data but they refuse to look at such data)  The best teachers aren’t even used as advisors.

So your child likely ends up with a teacher who might not even understand how to impart long-term knowledge to your child.  And he/she has no way of seeking help.  In fact, because most LCPS students score well regardless of their teacher (they are naturally bright and have supportive parents), many of the ineffective teachers don’t even know they are ineffective because the average scores are relatively high.  But the students’ growth lags behind.

The SGP data I sought shows who are the most effective teachers.  On a Twitter chat conversation, one NC principal who opposed using VAMs told me he didn’t need the growth scores because it told him what he already knew (who were the good and bad teachers).  This is an implicit acknowledgement of their validity.  But research shows principals don’t know who the best teachers are.  And that begs the question why the ineffective teachers are still instructing core classes if the principal knows who they are.

Teachers are not evaluated whatsoever on their SOL scores.  Teacher evals are complete BEFORE the SOL data is even received by LCPS (see my Richmond court transcript for this acknowledgement).  Thus, you can’t blame teachers’ fear of SOL scores for teaching a given way.

Our LCPS admin is hopelessly lost.  It can only be fixed by a new school board.


When all focus is placed on SOL testing and how well a student performs there, and the results reflect directly on the teacher and the school, it is not possible for the teachers to teach anything other than how to pass an SOL test.

Maybe if the SOLs were set up for different paths and added everyday, common sense subjects (balancing a checkbook, writing a letter, addressing an envelope, conducting financial transactions, etc.) students would graduate as functioning members of society. Or, if the SOLs were done away with completely, teachers could teach.


“This story make no cents.  I learned writing in local schools and recieved good grades.  We should be top rated.”

This made me laugh…. “sense”... “received”.

Anyway, I agree with the point about phones.  The teachers can set the policy in their own classrooms and enact a total ban on phones but most don’t do it because they don’t want the conflict.  It’s not all the kids.  Come parents are insisting that kid’s be allowed to have phones on them at all times and will message them in the middle of the day.


MeetJohnDoe, cursive writing has not been gotten rid of. It is part of the Virginia English SOLs and my elementary school aged daughter has been taught cursive in school.


Well…we got rid of cursive writing, students won’t be able to read original historical documents, so let’s include history in the near future too.


This story make no cents.  I learned writing in local schools and recieved good grades.  We should be top rated.


“The decline can be attributed to several factors, including budget cuts in many public schools, less individualized instruction and a change in the essay portion of standardized tests, which are now harder and focus more on critical thinking skills.”

What is the source of the above quote? Is it mere speculation on the part of the article’s author?

What about factors like students being constantly distracted by their phones, which seems to be encouraged by Loudoun’s bring-your-own-technology initiative? What about policies that allow students to do constant retakes if they aren’t happy with their grades? These types of things take students’ focus away from caring about learning and focus instead on simply getting whatever minimum grade they’d like. 

Individualized instruction was never a “thing” when the “grownups” of today were in school. We were simply expected to be more attentive to our lessons, and we were never coddled by the idea that education had to be fun. We were there to learn, and that’s what we were expected to do.

Relatives from Pennsylvania have told me how much different the learning culture is up there, with students not allowed to even have phones in sight and students expected to be much more attentive to their lessons.

The county keeps talking about rigor, but I don’t see a true desire to foster kids’ critical thinking or learning skills. Only to embrace new trends that look good. Individualized instruction and more money in education is all well and good—except that before any of that will even help, we’ve got to have kids who actually care about learning for the sake of learning and self improvement.


Let me guess: NoRedInk can fix all of this for a price.

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