Thursday, October 7, 2004

Writing tips online for 2 N.Ky. schools

By Karen Gutierrez
Enquirer staff writer

Two Northern Kentucky school districts are using a computer service to scan student writing and offer automated criticism.

The idea: To save English teachers from burnout, especially at the fourth-, seventh-and 12th-grade levels.

"I think it's wonderful," said Gene Kirchner, deputy superintendent of the Walton-Verona school system. "This is the type of technology the world now presents to us. If you're not going to use it, why have it?"

The service is called Criterion. It's sold by Educational Testing Service, the same company that administers the SAT.

Criterion uses automated scoring technology to provide students with feedback on grammar, usage, spelling and style. Students log onto the service through the Internet.

This year, the Fort Thomas and Walton-Verona school districts each will spend about $4,000 to purchase access for students. They are the only districts in Northern Kentucky using it.

It should be especially helpful in the fourth, seventh and 12th grades, Kirchner said.

That's when Kentucky students must choose five examples of their best writing and collect them in portfolios. The portfolios are then scored and used to judge school performance under the state's accountability system.

It's a pressure cooker for teachers. Many spend nights, weekends and holidays reading rough drafts of essays.

Teachers are not allowed to directly point out errors, because the writing is supposed to be the students' own work. So teachers write vague notes suggesting areas that could be improved, or they "conference" with students to discuss issues in their writing.

It's so time-consuming that Amy Cody, a seventh-grade teacher at Walton-Verona High School, almost took a leave of absence last year so she could pay more attention to her family. "I used to read them and read them and read them, and I about drove myself crazy," Cody said of portfolio pieces.

Criterion should help because it will address basics such as sentence length, subject-verb agreement and overuse of the pronoun "I."

The program indicates such problems and refers students to an online handbook for more information

Before purchasing the service, the districts checked with the Kentucky Department of Education to make sure it wouldn't violate ethics rules.

A state official observed Criterion in the Fort Thomas school system and pronounced it acceptable, Assistant Superintendent John Williamson said.

The program is "probably one step up from Microsoft Word," he said.

Especially in advanced high school classes, the feedback is too generic to be of much use, Williamson said.

Still, Criterion does help teachers juggle classroom duties. While they work one-on-one with some students, others can be running their papers through the service, Williamson said.



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