When 11th-grade students in Murray County went back to school on Sept. 7, they had only three weeks before they had to take the Georgia High School Writing Test required as one criteria for graduation.
“We told (everyone at the schools), day one, that’s what you do — everybody writes,” said Cheryl Thomasson, secondary curriculum director for the school district. “Last year, when we did the 160-day calendar, we just didn’t think about how quickly it came ... That slipped up on us last year. So, this year we just said, ‘Start in right now, don’t consider anything else, writing needs to be first and foremost.’”
The effort paid off. Eleventh-grade students across the district (including Mountain Creek Academy) collectively had a 92 percent pass rate, up from 84 percent the year before. That’s still below the state average of nearly 96 percent, but it’s a remarkable improvement for a year, Thomasson said.
At North Murray, where 216 juniors took the test, only five did not pass, she said. At Murray, 208 students took the exam for the first time, and 13 did not pass. Mountain Creek Academy didn’t have enough students take the test to generate a separate report, so those students’ scores were factored into the district average.
Students are allowed to take the test multiple times. The 100-minute test requires students to write a composition of no more than two pages on an assigned prompt.
All three area school districts saw their percent passing rise over last year. Whitfield students rose from 89 percent passing to 92 percent. Dalton students rose from about 93 percent passing to nearly 97 percent.
Students at Dalton High School led schools in Whitfield and Murray counties with a mean scale score of 228.5 on a scale of 100 to 350. A 200 is necessary to pass, and 250 or more means the student exceeds standards. North Murray and the Whitfield Career Academy had the highest pass rates at 97.6 percent and 97, respectively.
Whitfield County Schools spokesman Eric Beavers said students used to take a local writing test in grades 4, 6, 7, 9 and 10, which helped them prepare for the state-mandated writing tests in grades 3, 5, 8 and 11. The results helped teachers pinpoint areas in which students needed more help. While that program has been cut from the budget, Beavers said students continue to write more than they did several years ago.
“Students spend more time on reflective writing about their work,” he said. “As you walk through all of our elementary, middle and high schools you see a lot more writing on the walls than you did 10 years ago, or even five years ago.”
Dalton English teacher Teresa Bennett said teachers several years ago were grouped into grade level teams so each could develop expertise in their own subjects and grades, thereby becoming more helpful to students. There’s also relatively low turnover, meaning teachers can spend more time helping students when they aren’t themselves trying to adjust to a new environment, she added. Then there’s the fact that students write often.
Dalton junior Maclean Davies said students at his school don’t prepare for the test per se, but they spend a lot of time writing in all of their classes.
“It wasn’t that difficult,” he said of the test.
High School: Percent passing, mean score
Dalton: 96.5, 228.52
Murray County: 93.8, 218.97
North Murray: 97.6, 221.32
Northwest Whitfield: 96.7, 220.41
Phoenix: 96.2, 216.38
Southeast: 91.9, 217.3
Whitfield Career Academy: 97, 216.08
(Georgia: 95.5, 223.76)
Note: The range for the Georgia High School Writing Test is 100 to 350. A score of 200 is required to pass; 250 or better means the student exceeds standards. Source: gadoe.org