County writing scores reveal females score higher than males

2002 Eleventh Grade State Writing Test Results by County and Gender - % Competency

Washington 69.8% 82.6%

By Julie Fann
Star Staff

The Tennessee Department of Education recently announced that statewide writing scores have risen for the eighth year in a row, with 70.4 percent of 11th grade students scoring at the competent level or above. When divided by gender, females score higher than males in nearly all 95 counties and in all three grades tested.
   "I don't know that anyone has actually determined what the cause is. It's just a gender phenomenon. That doesn't mean that we can't bring boys up to the same level as girls," said Dr. Claudette Williams, Executive Director of Curriculum for the DOE in Nashville.
   Steven Cockerham, professor of Human Development and Learning at East Tennessee State University, said the reason females score higher than males in linguistics and writing is due to a combination of culture and biology.
   "The left side of the brain controls language and math, while the right side responds more to the visual arts and music. But males usually do better than females in math, so it can't all rest on biology. That's where culture comes in. We still tell the sexes who they are to a degree," Cockerham said.
   Another reason why females may score higher on the writing assessment could be the way the test is developed and administered, and the way males respond to it, according to Cockerham. "It would take quite a bit of research to reach that conclusion though," he said.
   Shirley Ellis, testing coordinator for the Carter County School System, believes overcoming the gender difference in writing will involve ignoring the issue altogether. "It's one of those things that we've been taught. We need to start with K-3 and provide more incentives for correct writing patterns, provide encouragement to males, and forget about the gender problem," she said.
   Writing scores in Carter County have improved significantly since last year. While 49 percent of 11th graders achieved a competent score in 2001, that figure rose to 70 percent in 2002, according to results Ellis compiled through her office.
   "We have been working hard on the high school level to teach writing across the curriculum so that, when test time comes, students are ready," she said.
   This year, the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program) writing assessment measured the writing skills of students in grades four, seven, and 11. Next year, according to Ellis, grades five, eight, and 12 will take the exam.
   "The state tests one grade from each 'cluster' or group of grades where growth is a factor of distinction," Ellis said.
   The test requires students write an essay on an assigned topic for approximately 35 minutes. High school students must write a persuasive paper, junior high students write an expository essay, and elementary children write a narrative story.
   Topics for the test are different each year and vary according to grade. Fourth graders may write about a day that was special to them, while high school students may choose, for example, if they believe it might or might not be necessary to cut spending for sports in schools. Then they defend their position.
   Scores are determined by using a rubric system, which is a six-point holistic scale that distinguishes between essays that are outstanding, strong, competent, limited, flawed, or deficient. An advisory committee made up of Tennessee teachers and administrators designed the rubric, and the same rubric is used for each grade.
   "For many years, writing was simply something you did without instruction. A teacher gave you a topic on Monday and told you to turn in your essay on Friday. You were completely on your own, so if you didn't intuitively know how to write, you were lost," Williams said.
   The most important fact for students to understand is that writing is a process, according to Williams. She said schools now focus on the steps involved in that process, steps such as brainstorming, pre-writing, drafting and editing.
   "We have come a long way with this system, and it is one of the success stories of our state," Williams said.