Seeking the write way

Durango district revises writing standards to lift declining scores

Park Elementary School second-grade student James Patla practices his writing skills with teacher Gretchen Willis. The Durango School District is instituting a new “Sixt-Trait” rubric to judge and improve students’ writing. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Park Elementary School second-grade student James Patla practices his writing skills with teacher Gretchen Willis. The Durango School District is instituting a new “Sixt-Trait” rubric to judge and improve students’ writing.

The American novelist James T. Farrell insisted that “neither man nor God is going to tell me what to write.”

Such hubris might suit the adult author of the wildly successful Studs Lonigan trilogy.

But it doesn’t apply to the students of Durango School District, whose writing scores on state tests have declined or stagnated since 2007, causing the district to throw out the teacher-developed assessment rubric it has been using since 2000.

Now, teachers will assess students’ writing according to a “Six-Trait” rubric.

“It all began with the test scores,” said Victor Figueroa, assistant superintendent. “It was really concerning. During the last five years, writing scores declined, then, when we looked at our latest scores, we didn’t see any improvement.

“The other thing was going out into schools with Dan,” said Figueroa, referring to Dan Snowberger, the district’s new superintendent. “We realized that when we looked at teachers’ standards for grading writing, they were all over the board.”

Julie Popp, district spokeswoman, said the new rubric was a “big change.” Under the old rubric, teachers’ judged students’ writing according to four standards. The new rubric tests both students’ mastery of and progress toward six standards: grasp of ideas and content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency and conventions.

Subjectivity

E. L. Doctorow wrote that good writing was “a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”: Authors are praised and damned for taking liberties with reality, grammar, voice; all sorts of writing, from the satiric to the tragic, can be wonderful or meritless.

How, then, do you measure good writing? Since the invention of the printing press, that question has baffled publishers.

Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, winner of the 1937 Pulitzer Prize, was rejected by 38 publishers, though it became an instant bestseller and the basis of the highest grossing Hollywood film of all time (adjusted for inflation).

Nine publishing houses, including the venerable HarperCollins and Penguin, rejected J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before Bloomsbury, a tiny London-based publisher, agreed to take it on because its CEO’s 8-year-old daughter begged her father to print it. (Give that girl a raise.)

One American publisher rejected Animal Farm by George Orwell, writing, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” Orwell fared better than John Le Carré, whose The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was passed from one publisher to another with the note, “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”

In action, the district’s new rubric certainly allows a level of precision that may have evaded such literary agents.

When presented with four highly abridged excerpts from literature and judged according to only two rubrics – conventions and organization – Popp, ever game, found that Fydor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, scored a 5 out of 6 on both counts.

Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals also scored a 5 on organization, but just a 4 on conventions (marred, as it was, by a run-on sentence). Though many critics consider Joan Didion to be America’s greatest living author, a passage from her Slouching Towards Bethlehem scored mere 4s, while a relatively chaste sample from E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey earned a 5 for organization and 4 for conventions.

A better measurement

The district acknowledges that its renewed attempt to quantify the merit of students’ writing is slightly quixotic.

“Writing is inherently subjective,” said Popp. But Figueroa hopes that by adopting the Six-Trait rubric, teachers will be better able to ascertain whether students’ command of state-required skills.

“Before, depending on what you knew about the student, you might give them a better grade, because they had made progress,” said Figueroa.

“With this rubric, teachers will be able to compare where a student should be with where state standards say they need to be,” said Figueroa. “And it’s not just English teachers, this writing rubric is going to be used by P.E. teachers, math, music, science teachers, across every kind of writing,” whether first-person narratives, essays, fiction or book reports.

But when Figueroa was asked to assess six samples from literature according to the new rubric – including excerpts by Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Agatha Christie, J.K. Rowling, and James Joyce – he declined.

In an email, he wrote, “After looking over your writing samples, I considered the purpose and scoring criteria of Six-Trait writing. As I result, I believe it is not accurate to score a piece of writing using only a small sample of that piece,” casting a firm vote in favor of bureaucratic sanity over the pleasures of literary schizophrenia.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald 
As the district institutes a new rubric to judge students’ writing, Park Elementary School second-grade teacher Gretchen Willis assists student Sydney Wells with a writing skills exercise as Rabun Shropshire works on her own. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald As the district institutes a new rubric to judge students’ writing, Park Elementary School second-grade teacher Gretchen Willis assists student Sydney Wells with a writing skills exercise as Rabun Shropshire works on her own.

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