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Clayton Schools sees dip in writing scores

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

A year after Clayton County Public Schools saw all of its high schools make gains on the Georgia High School Graduation Test Writing Assessment, the district saw a slight slip backwards in this year's results, according to figures released by the school system.

School System Spokesman Charles White said 89 percent of high school juniors, who took the writing assessment in September, met or exceeded state standards. That is down one percentage point from last year, but is still higher than the 87 percent who met or exceeded state standards two years ago.

Clayton County Public Schools Secondary Language Arts Coordinator Shonda Shaw said English/Language Arts teachers at all of the county's high schools will undergo additional training on teaching the areas covered in the state's writing assessment.

"We're still in the same ball park as last year, but we're always looking for ways to improve our scores," Shaw said. "We'd like to have 100 percent of our students meeting or exceeding the state standards in writing."

The Georgia High School Graduation Test is administered to high school juniors in two parts. The writing assessment is offered in the fall. A test covering English/Language Arts, mathematics, social studies and science is administered in the spring.

On the writing assessment, students have 100 minutes to write a persuasive essay, and their essays are graded on how well the students perform in the areas of style, ideas, organization, grammar and mechanics.

"Writing is all over the curriculum," said Georgia Department of Education Spokesman Matt Cardoza. "Writing can help students with the comprehension of information, grammar and general communication skills."

Cardoza said figures on how high school juniors, statewide, performed on the writing assessment will not be ready until May 2010, when the results from the spring portion of the graduation test are also available.

Locally, only two Clayton County high schools made gains on the writing test this year, according to White. Those schools are Forest Park High School (89 percent of test takers met or exceeded standards, a 5-point increase from last year) and North Clayton High School (93 percent, an increase of 1 point), he said.

Riverdale High School's percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards remained the same, at 90 percent, White said. He also said decreases were seen at Mundy's Mill High School (92 percent met or exceeded state standards, a decrease of 3 points); Jonesboro High School (88 percent, down 3 points); Lovejoy High School (87 percent, down 2 points); Morrow High School (86 percent, down 2 points), and Mt. Zion High School (91 percent, down 1 point).

Of the schools where decreases were seen this fall, however, only Jonesboro's decrease was larger than the 2-point gain it made last year. Mundy's Mill High School's 3-point slide erased the 3-point gain it made last year. Lovejoy's, Morrow's and Mt. Zion's percentages remain ahead of where those schools were two years ago.

Shaw pointed to two subgroups in particular as examples of how improved teacher training has helped boost student performance on the writing assessment: Students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Fifty-nine percent of students with disabilities in Clayton County met or exceeded state writing standards this fall, which is up 4 points from last year, Shaw said. She added that 59 percent of English language learners also met or exceeded state writing standards, which is an increase of 8 points from last year.

"We've been working with the [DOE's] Division of Exceptional Students on training for our teachers," Shaw said. "All of our teachers, across all of the subgroups, are now training together, so no child is left behind, and no teacher is left behind."

Although the district's overall percentage of students meeting or exceeding state writing standards slipped this year, the results of the writing assessment show that this year's crop of juniors have made significant improvement in writing in just one year, Shaw said.

In the fall of 2008, the school system administered a mock writing assessment to 10th graders for the first time. Shaw said the 10th grade teachers used the results to determine what areas they needed to focus on during the second half of the school year.

On last fall's mock assessment, 76 percent of the then-sophomores met or exceeded state standards. That same group of students were the ones taking the real writing assessment as juniors this fall, Shaw said.

"Going from 76 percent to 89 percent shows these students have made a lot of improvement in just one year," she said.