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Why Can't Jenny Write?

August 15, 2007 By Elizabeth Shirek, Undergraduate Research Fellow

Minnesota's future economic growth depends on strong customer service, rapid adaptability and working smarter. Growing reports about higher education preparedness cast that future into doubt. So, why can't young people write?

High school graduates in Minnesota are increasingly unprepared for college writing. As a result, higher education institutions are required to teach or re-teach what the students should have learned in high school and even middle or elementary school.

Good teachers take the time to provide thoughtful, meaningful feedback. They help their students succeed and, regardless of subject, become stronger writers.

However, it is practically impossible for a high school teacher to provide quality feedback to three dozen students on their papers, prepare them for various standardized tests, and deal with parent pressures. Since tests are now a large factor in college acceptance, more focus is put on those, and less time is spent on the basics of English language and structure.

In fall 2003, 93 percent of Minnesota two-year and 57 percent of public four-year colleges offered remedial reading courses, according to a study published in 2005 by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.  Remedial writing courses were offered at 97 percent of two-year and 57 percent of four-year public institutions.

Minnesota's higher education institutions are almost equaled with the national average in remedial writing and writing courses-both 96 percent for two-year and 67 and 49 percent for four-year. 

At Normandale Community College, 71 percent of the students need remedial English classes and 42 percent need courses in reading. Like all other community colleges in the state, Normandale is an "open door" enrollment college, meaning anyone with a high school diploma or GED is accepted.

Improving high school writing ability is a complex problem. "It is not as simple as saying that high schools are not doing their job" said Dr. Rose Jones from Bemidji State University.

Some educators blame inadequate writing preparation on the politics surrounding high schools, colleges and universities. "High schools get lots of pressure to pass people up, even if they're not ready "said David Pichaske, an English professor at Southwest Minnesota State University.

Sonja Saunders, an English teacher at Minnetonka High School, cites another reason for the lack of writing in high schools.  "The demands on the teacher are immense.  With class sizes increasing everywhere, and standardized tests becoming more and more important, it is hard for a teacher to choose to take all that time to grade, provide critical comments and help each student."

"Grade inflation is high in high schools," said Saunders.  "There are huge amounts of parental pressure. It's easier to pass a student than fail one. Failing requires a lot of administrative support."

At Eden Prairie High School, 23 students graduated with a 4.0 grade point average or higher. Eden Prairie is not alone; schools across the state and country are finding that a grade point average is an inadequate survey of academic excellence.

Many Minnesota four-year higher education institutions no longer have a remedial course for English.  Instead, regular college level courses have been formed that contain the previously remedial material. At Southwest Minnesota State University, along with other public and private schools in the state, that means basic spelling and syntax.

Writing is a critical life skill. College should be about building on high school achievement, not struggling to teach what wasn't learned.

Mandated standardized tests, like No Child Left Behind, are accelerating the writing decline.  State education policy is failing our students. The abundance of remedial and basic writing courses in higher education is proof.

Minnesota's education tradition suggests that Minnesota can do better. Eliminating the No Child Left Behind "teach to the test" practices is a good start. Writing communicates ideas and ideas move Minnesota forward.

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