While Lawrence school board members Monday were disturbed to see that student writing scores in Lawrence were lower than those in other districts, some school officials said direct comparisons among the districts may not be completely valid.
Sandra Chapman, the district's director for student outcomes, presented the results of a new writing test given in November to the district's seventh- and 10th-graders.
About 1,200 Lawrence students took part in the four-day exercise, in which each student developed a rough draft of an essay on a given topic, revised the work and then prepared a final essay.
Students from six school districts took part in the assessment, and about 100 teachers from those districts met in December to rate the papers after mastering a consistent grading system.
Each paper was rated by two teachers in the following six areas: ideas and content; organization and development; voice, tone and flavor; effective word choice; sentence fluency; and writing conventions, such punctuation and spelling.
THE STUDENTS were rated on a scale of one to five, with half points possible and five being the top score. The scores given by the two raters were averaged unless their scores were more than 1 point apart, in which case a third person rated the work.
In all grading areas, the average score of Lawrence students was slightly lower than the average score of all students in the consortium.
"When I looked at the results here, I was very disappointed," board member Tom Murray said Monday. After seeing the essay of a Lawrence student that received a 1.5 for ideas and content, Murray asked, "Is this person going to improve?"
Becky Wagner, a Lawrence High School English teacher, said teachers have access to the students' scores and can find out in which areas students have weaknesses.
WAGNER said one good thing about the test is that "it's not just an assessment model. It's given me a good way to teach writing." Wagner said students in her class now learn about the six areas graded on the essays.
Murray said he was disappointed that Chapman didn't know the scores of students in the other consortium districts of Manhattan, Shawnee Heights, Mayetta, Auburn-Washburn and Seaman.
Chapman said consortium participants agreed not to make district-to-district comparisons. She said such comparisons might not be valid anyway.
"The socioeconomic diversity is different in each of the districts. The ethnic diversity is different in each of the districts," Chapman said, adding that "the real emphasis should be on setting standards in the individual districts."
BOARD Vice President Barbara Ballard said that even if the district could make such comparisons, "The fact remains that we know we don't have a strong enough program in place."
Chapman said one shouldn't expect all students to score 4 or 5 in all areas.
"We're talking about averages here, so there is going to be some distribution in scores," she said. "Our scores at least represent a balanced paper. A balanced paper has strengths and weaknesses both."
Chapman said she was more concerned about the disparity among scores of Lawrence students with different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. She pointed out that:
IN ALL areas, students receiving free or reduced-price lunches had average scores at least one-quarter of a point lower than the average scores of students not receiving that assistance. She said such a score difference is "educationally significant."
In both the seventh- and 10th-grades, either Native American students or black students had the lowest average scores in every area.
Chapman said the district must try to "close the gap" in those test scores and then try to bring all students up to a higher standard.
Chapman said teachers may have to devote additional attention to troubled students. However, she said, "We have to do this while we are addressing the needs of our high fliers."