Writing & Rigor: Hommocks Looks to Improve Writing Curriculum

by Melany Gray

(April 17, 2008) Many curriculum presentations begin with a look back, but Hommocks Principal Seth Weitzman promised to run the April 15 PTA meeting “like an upside down cake,” beginning with an outline of where the school’s writing curriculum is headed. Speaking to more than 100 parents, Dr. Weitzman acknowledged that the subject of writing “has generated a great deal of heat and light” in recent years. He then dove into a description of the ten steps being undertaken to strengthen the middle school writing program.

Planned Improvements

These steps include plans for every student, each quarter, to complete a minimum of one extended, multi-day writing task that will be sent home along with a grading rubric and detailed assessment so parents can see how their children’s writing progresses throughout the year. This is a direct response to parent concerns that they do not see enough writing in middle school. The planned measure will assure not only that the writing is happening but also that the parents get to see it.

Another key improvement involves the hiring of a literacy coach, whose salary is included in the school district’s proposed budget for 2008-2009, to be voted upon by the community on May 20. The literacy coach would not be limited to working with the neediest writers, Dr. Weitzman explained. Instead, the coach would be a master teacher interacting with and guiding teachers across the building, teaching model lessons in classes, and helping to align the English curriculum from class to class and grade to grade.

Dr. Weitzman outlined additional steps in which staff will create new curriculum and writing assignments, receive new training, prepare for assessments, and communicate with parents.

Understanding the ERBs

Annie Ward, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, tackled the issue of assessment results, including those from the Educational Records Bureau (ERB), which have created a fair amount of angst among Hommocks parents in recent months.

The ERBs are not to be confused with the state-mandated English Language Arts (ELA) assessment, which also is administered yearly. On the ELA, Mamaroneck district students typically outperform state averages on every test at every grade level; in addition, Hommocks passing rates are higher than Westchester County’s average on every test at every level from grades three through eight.

2007 NYS ELA Exams Percent of Students Achieving 3's and 4's
Mamaroneck ELA 2007   


It is because Mamaroneck students fare so well on the state tests, Ms. Ward noted, that the district chooses to “raise the bar” and administer the ERB Writing Assessment Program (the ERB WrAP). The test is administered to and scored against students in high performing private and suburban schools throughout the country, including schools in Scarsdale, Rye, Wilton, Connecticut and Bergen County, New Jersey.

Ms. Ward has been involved in the past in revising the ERB WrAP rubric as part of a conference convened by the Educational Records Bureau in Durham, North Carolina.
Describing the assessment as “the Zagat of writing,” she explained that the test provides a direct assessment of students’ writing, resulting in a detailed evaluation of six different sub-skills, or elements of composition (Overall Development, Organization, Support, Sentence Structure, Word Choice and Mechanics). Each of these elements is rated on a six-point scale by two highly trained raters using a detailed rubric. Those scaled scores can then be compared against suburban norms and each student is given percentile rank.

How Hommocks Measures Up

Although the results of the 2007 Hommocks ERB WrAP are consistent with prior years, this is the first year they were mailed home, and many parents found them confusing and surprising. Accustomed to seeing the usual 3’s and 4’s (out of a 4-point scale) that most children receive on their ELA assessments, many parents were surprised to learn that most Hommocks students got 3’s and 4’s on the ERB assessments as well, even though that scale runs to six points. Other parents were bothered that their “A” students at Hommocks placed in the 50th percentile, or “average” for the test group, or even below that marker.

In addition, at the Hommocks, the 2007 ERB WrAP was given in the first weeks of the school year, when many students were just beginning to re-familiarize themselves with the idea of holding a pencil after summer vacation. Schools to which Hommocks students were compared administered the test slightly later in the year. Testing early in the school year enables a school to get the results back in time to use the data as a diagnostic tool to improve and target instruction, but can cause scores to be lower than if the tests had been administered later. District administrators and teachers will be discussing whether they should continue to give the test in September, or move it to later in the school year.

In analyzing the ERB data and trends, Ms. Ward reported that Hommocks students generally keep up with the suburban norming group, neither consistently underperforming nor outperforming other suburban school districts who use the test. In the past two years, there have been gains in scores in the areas of sentence structure and mechanics, recent areas of focus for Hommocks faculty. Nevertheless, she noted, the clustering of data at the 70th percentile reveals a “performance ceiling”: our writers do not achieve top scores in the six elements assessed. This is the trend, she emphasized, that is most on her mind.

Using the new “e-school” student data system to compare the ERB assessments with the ELA scores, Ms. Ward determined that success on the ELA is a “necessary but insufficient predictor of success” on the ERB. Thus, a passing score on the ELA doesn’t necessarily point to success on the ERB WrAP, and many students with 3’s on the ELA perform below the 50th percentile on the ERBs.

Moving Ahead

In determining how to improve performance and lift the quality of writing, Ms. Ward cited as a roadmap the standards of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the “mother ship” of English teachers. She noted that teachers need to move away from merely “assigning and assessing” work and provide students with coaching before, during and after their writing. As with a sport, students need “skill and drill,” but also instruction on how to apply their learned skills “in the game.” In addition, Ms. Ward observed, there is something of a mismatch between what students have traditionally read – mostly rich fiction – and what they are called upon to write in secondary school – mostly nonfiction.

Ms. Ward has been working for the past two years with a team of fourteen teachers to create literacy units, align curriculum and create consistency at the elementary level. Working with the new literacy coach and the Hommocks teachers, she will look to institute a similar model at the middle school. She cautioned, though, that “there are no shortcuts.”

As former middle school English teachers, both she and Dr. Weitzman are well aware of the unique developmental characteristics of middle schoolers, who require teaching and re-teaching. Those same students, they said, often cannot remember their lunches or sports equipment in the morning as they leave for school and may forget their locker combinations on long vacation breaks.

Consistency and Differentiation

In response to parent questions about how the writing program can be assessed for consistency, Ms. Ward pointed to the curriculum units described by teachers who presented at the meeting.

Robert Morrissey, English department chair, described the extensive teaching, brainstorming, writing, revising, editing and conferring that he had been doing with his eighth grade students over the past three weeks as they prepared autobiographical writings. Sixth grade teachers Katie Lopez (English) and Susan Chester (Social Studies) explained how they worked together over a six-week period, both in their individual and co-taught classes, to teach students how to research and write a feature article about Ancient Rome.

These kinds of units, Ms. Ward submitted, are the first step in creating consistency. Expectations must be developed and articulated clearly. Dr. Weitzman described the proposed literacy coach as “critical” to the curriculum alignment issue. Mr. Morrisey noted that as English department chair, his role is to support other teachers, not supervise them. Moreover, he has his own classes to teach and is not available to observe other teachers in their classrooms.

The literacy coach is also important to assuring that teachers can adequately differentiate instruction so that students at all levels are able to improve their writing, explained Ms. Ward. In response to a parent’s question on whether the district would consider an enriched middle school writing class for top students, Ms. Ward rejected the idea, noting that the NCTE took a strong stance against tracking. She observed that even teachers of enriched classes (as she had once been) must differentiate between learners with widely divergent needs. Expectations for the “kids left behind” become quite different with tracking so that they are often not challenged to excel, she said.

Instead of tracking to support the achievement of high performing students, Ms. Ward emphasized the need to differentiate instruction in heterogeneous classes. She commended a model for “orbital study” being employed by certain Hommocks teachers this year, which allows a group of students who were particularly interested in the Shakespeare curriculum to do additional, deeper exploration of Shakespeare, circling back to the whole class with what they have learned and providing opportunities for additional students to join the group. The literacy coach will be able to work with teachers to develop additional orbital opportunities.

Reviewing the Reading Part of Literacy

In response to parent questions about the educational value of having students read independently during class, Ms. Ward and Dr. Weitzman explained the necessity of having a balanced reading program. The research on improving reading is clear, Ms. Ward noted: students must have a high volume of “high success” reading with explicit instruction in reading strategies, as well as conversations about literature. Although certain texts may be important enough that they should be read by all students in a grade, these “whole class texts” are unlikely to be high success reading for all students, as some students will find them too challenging and others will find them too easy. Thus, independent reading is essential to achieve volume, including a limited amount of in-class reading where teachers can conference with students individually to assure that independent reading is, in fact, taking place and that the selected books are appropriate for each student. Literature circles made up of groups of students who read and discuss a common book, both independently and with teacher instruction, round out the picture of a balanced reading program.

Hommocks currently has one reading specialist, but the proposed district budget includes the hiring of another. In addition to working with struggling readers, which enables instruction for all students to occur at a higher level, reading specialists also enhance teachers’ understanding of the reading process, explained Ms. Ward later.

Parent Feedback

Feedback from the program was mostly positive, although some parents left frustrated that their specific individual concerns had not been addressed.

PTA co-president Gloria Kushel expressed excitement about the interdisciplinary collaboration between departments, the work planned to be done over the summer, and continued interest and support from parents. The PTA will continue to work with the school to keep parents informed and provide additional feedback on the proposed changes to the writing curriculum, she said.

Melany Gray volunteers with the Hommocks PTA.