2 Rs Left in High School
Out of choice or fatigue, many teachers have abandoned the term paper,
leaving a hole in college-bound students' education.
By Erika Hayasaki
Times Staff Writer
May 19, 2003
High school junior Dominique Houston is a straight-A student enrolled in
honors and Advanced Placement classes at Northview High School in Covina.
She is a candidate for class valedictorian and hopes to double-major in
marine biology and political science in college, preferably UCLA or the
University of San Diego.
But the 17-year-old said she has written only one research paper during her
high school career. It was three pages long, examining the habits of beluga
Houston frets over whether she will be able to handle assignments for long,
footnoted research papers once she gets to college.
"Bibliographies? We don't really even know how to do those. I don't even
know how I would write a 15-page paper. I don't even know how I would
begin," she said.
Her experience appears to be increasingly common. Across the country, high
school English and social studies teachers have cut back or simply
abandoned the traditional term paper.
Although some students and critics contend that teachers are lazier than in
the past, many educators say they can't grade piles of papers for
overcrowded classes while trying to meet the increased demands of
standardized testing, many of which involve multiple-choice questions.
Other teachers believe that term papers are meaningless exercises, because
the Internet has made plagiarism more common and difficult to spot. And
many say long (10- to 15-page) research papers are pointless, because many
students' basic writing skills are weak and are more likely to improve with
shorter and more frequent assignments.
A report by the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and
Colleges, a panel of academics gathered by the College Board, found that
75% of high school seniors never receive writing assignments in history or
The study also found that a major research and writing project required in
the senior year of high school "has become an educational curiosity,
something rarely assigned." In addition, the report found that, by the
first year of college, more than 50% of freshmen are unable to analyze or
synthesize information or produce papers free of language errors.
Commission Chairman C. Peter Magrath blamed societal changes. "We don't
write letters anymore, because we use telephone and e-mail and watch
television. We communicate in all kinds of other ways," he said.
Teresa Humphreys, head counselor at Northview, said the school recognizes
the problem and will start an intense writing plan next year, requiring
papers in nearly every subject.
"We want them to get back to writing," Humphreys said. "We decided this
will be the focus of our school."
All schools need to refocus that way, said Gary Orfield, a professor of
education at Harvard University. During his public high school days, he
wrote many research papers, including one on Shakespeare. Such assignments
are rare today, he said, because "we're in such an idiotic period in
education that we've simplified it into filling in this bubble."
"If we send students to college without being able to think, synthesize or
write in a coherent way, students are going to be crippled, no matter what
their test scores are," he said.
The result shows in the awful quality of many college term papers, said J.
Martin Rochester, author of a book on failing education systems and a
professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"I read every paper line by line," he said of his students' research
projects. "It's one of the most painful ordeals you can ever go through.
Students today cannot write a complete sentence."
Eliana Seja, 18, a freshman at USC, said she rarely had to do research
papers when she was an honors student at Chino High School. The longest
assignment she remembers was three pages. During her senior year, the only
writing assignment she completed was her personal essay required for
college admittance, she said.
She struggled through her first college paper, six pages for her sociology
class examining the role of families in the media.
"When I came here, I was so scared about writing papers, because I didn't
have any experience," Seja said. "It was really a challenge. It was so hard
for me. I had no idea about structure."
Dawn Damron, co-chairwoman of the English department at Chino High, said
that students in almost all grades have to do some research, but that it is
up to each teacher to decide the length and frequency of writing
assignments. Most teachers concentrate on making sure students can
"coherently write a five-paragraph essay," because that is the type of
writing that students must complete on timed standardized tests, she said.
"I wouldn't say research papers have gone out the window," Damron said. But
she said she thinks students "probably do write less because the focus of
what they have to learn has changed. Standardized testing is a big deal.
The scores are published in the paper. People make assumptions about a
school based on one test."
At Roosevelt High School on Los Angeles' Eastside, finding a teacher
willing to assign a long paper would be like "finding a dinosaur," said
Aldo Parral, 32, who teaches social studies and Advanced Placement English.
When he was a student there, more than 15 years ago, he wrote a 12-page
paper on the stock market crash of 1987. But in 10 years as a teacher at
the school, Parral assigned no term papers because he thought journal
entries and short essays provided enough writing experience.
This year, he decided to challenge students in his advanced classes with a
four- to six-page research paper. He said most were receptive, because they
knew such work would be expected in college. He added that Roosevelt's
English and social studies departments are pushing to include more research
papers next year.
Although many teachers say they have given up on term papers because of the
hundreds of Web sites selling ready-written versions to cheaters, Donna
Garner, an English teacher who taught for 27 years in central Texas public
schools, has fought back.
She created and posted on the Internet a step-by-step process for teachers
who assign and grade term papers. It requires students to document and
update their research progress continuously, making it nearly impossible to
plagiarize by downloading a research paper the night before class.
According to Garner's instructions, students must gather information from a
variety of sources, including liberal and conservative magazines,
newspapers and Web sites. They must type a series of informal outlines and
rough drafts supporting each idea with labels and more background. They
edit and re-edit.
Other teachers say plagiarism concerns are secondary to time constraints.
As a new teacher three years ago at Granger High School in West Valley
City, Utah, Michelle Harper didn't foresee the stress of classes of 30 to
35 students. In her first year on the job, she assigned her English
students a 10-page research paper.
"Wow, it took me a long time to correct. Every waking moment I had a paper
in my hand, so that if I got a second I could read it," she said. "The next
time around I decided that I shouldn't have to give up everything ... for
research papers. We tried it a little smaller: five pages."
Now, they have been whittled down even more: "I don't assign more than a
typewritten page anymore."
Most troublesome were her students' struggles to construct complete
sentences and paragraphs.
"How can I expect a paper, if they can't make the first step?" Harper asked.
Some high school students and college professors, however, say the decline
is simply a result of the unwillingness of a growing number of teachers to
spend nights and weekends grading papers.
"Some wonderful teachers stay up until midnight grading," said Chester E.
Finn Jr., a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education. "But many
more are told by unions that the school day ends at 2:50, and that's when
they are done."
Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Assn. teachers
union, said the average teacher works 48 hours a week, even though their
contracts often require far less time. The decline of the term paper can be
traced to swelling class sizes, she said.
"If a teacher has 30 students in each class and five periods in a day,
that's 150 papers that have to be graded," she said. "That's a monumental
amount of reading."
Stephen Miller, 17, a senior at Santa Monica High School enrolled in honors
and AP classes, says he has never written a long term paper, even though
teachers there say students receive plenty of writing and research
Miller, who is active in band, tennis, religious studies and political and
youth groups, said there is no time for lengthy writing projects,
especially with all of the required testing.
"To be accepted into a university, you have to be a stellar student,
athletic, musically inclined and involved in the community," he said. "For
students like me, if I was getting term and research papers, it would
hinder my ability to perform well in other classes and continue all of the
extracurricular activities I am involved in."
But Miller, who will attend Duke University next year, said he is not
nervous about parachuting into a college atmosphere where five-, 10- and
15-page papers are due every few weeks.
He said he likes a challenge. Writing a term paper, he said, will "be a new
experience for me."
Copyright (c) 2003, The Los Angeles Times
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from the May 20, 2003 edition -
The book report bounces back
Getting middle school kids to read for fun is no small task, and traditional
methods are being rethought.
By Victoria Irwin | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Book reports have historically been the kind of assignment to get through as
quickly as possible.
Especially at the middle school level, the book review's cut-and-dried
content tended to include plot summary, character outline, and number of
pages. Writing a book review was almost a punishment for reading.
But the grim status of the book report is fading fast.
"When I read a book as an adult, I don't write a book report," says Maida
Finch, a sixth-grade teacher at Hill Middle School in Denver. "I might talk
to a friend about the details, or recommend it to a colleague."
So Ms. Finch's students, who cross the economic and ethnic spectrum, might
write "reading letters" to her each week. They still must summarize what
they've read, but to engage them further, Finch asks them to describe the
reading strategies they've used (i.e. asking questions or making predictions
about the story), and the author's writing style. Finch then writes back to
It's all part of the Studio Course in reading, adopted this year by the
Denver Public Schools and being phased in systemwide.
"This [approach] is much more realistic," Finch says.
The students still use the skills required in the past - writing complete
sentences, distilling plot - but they go further, reflecting on a book. What
does it make them think or feel? What predictions about the character did
they make while reading it, and were they right? How meaningful are details,
like the color of a dress, bring to a story? Does dialogue tell a story
better than the descriptive writing?
"That's much better for a student than just regurgitating the plot," Finch
Denver's approach is one of many ways teachers are encouraging middle school
students to simultaneously read and reflect - instead of read and regurgitate.
Reading groups have blossomed throughout society at large, thanks in part to
Oprah Winfrey and the continuing phenomenon of Oprah's Book Club.
In Minneapolis, Barton Open School uses literature circles, where students
join in groups of four or five to read a book.
Other middle schools encourage students to do reports using video and/or
computer PowerPoint presentations.
"Students need to make connections to the story and the author's words," says
Ann Teberg, an associate professor of education at Whitworth College in
Spokane, Wash., and the editor of "Middle School Matters" for the
International Reading Association.
"Encouraging a variety of responses [to a book] pushes students to write for
a variety of purposes and even for a variety of audiences," she says.
"Teachers can stretch the students to really put some effort into it. And the
'new' responses to books are much more fun to listen to."
In Amber Place's classroom at Barton Open School, students have a "voice and
choice" in literature circles that began earlier this year.
Seventh- and eighth-graders (classes are mixed) pick from a list of about
five to eight books, and are assigned to reading circles based on their
The students rotate "jobs" during four discussion days - that of vocabulary
enricher, passage picker, discussion director, summarizer, and illustrator.
The person in each role brings important elements to the discussions.
"If they're reading a book about the Holocaust, there might be German words,
or in 'Monster' by Walter Dean Meyers there is a lot of slang, for example,"
Ms. Place says. "The vocabulary enricher writes down the words and discusses
them with the circle."
"We want good, fat questions," she says. "Not 'What color was Jim's hair?'
but, for example, what did the students think about the writing style?"
The students keep journals based on their readings and discussions.
Student response has been very enthusiastic, Place says. She has even
overheard students in the hallways enthusiastically asking one another what
they are reading. "It's so cool," she says.
"Reading class is like a book club," says eighth-grader Mira-Lippold Johnson.
"We get together every day to read or discuss our book. We don't have the
pressure of tests or grades, so we can focus on whatever we are reading. The
rotating jobs don't let it become boring. The teachers don't teach us about
the book, so we come to our own conclusions."
Dr. Teberg is quick to concur. "How will we know what students are getting
from a book if they are simply rehashing the plot?" she asks.
"I'm definitely optimistic about where we're going with reading at the middle
school level," she says.
"Middle school students need to see the purpose of learning a skill. If they
get to choose what they are doing, they'll have a purpose - and it will help
them in the real world."
What children like to read
A casual survey of several middle school classes, together with a handful of
educators, gives a good indication of what books middle school students most
often reach for.
And the winner is: "Holes" by Louis Sachar. Even before this Newbery Award
novel was made into movie, "Holes" was a favorite of middle school students
everywhere. This hilarious tale of hard luck and redemption was the top pick
of almost all respondents.
After "Holes," Maida Finch's sixth-grade reading and writing class listed the
2. J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. Everyone is waiting anxiously for
book No. 5, due out in June.
3. "Teen Angst?" By Ned Vizzini.
4. The "Time Warp Trio" series by John Scieszka. Although this is a fairly
easy read, its spoofy satire and pastiche of real history make it a fun
choice for this level.
The Denver students couldn't agree on a fifth book, but some of the nominees
included "Redwall" by Brian Jacques, "The Diary of Anne Frank" by Anne Frank,
and any book by Judy Blume.
Any of the Newbery Award winners, given each year to the most distinguished
book in children's literature, get high marks from both educators and
Other fiction favorites receiving notice were "The Sisterhood of Traveling
Pants" by Ann Brashares, books by Walter Dean Myers - such as "Monster" - and
classics such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" or J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the
Favorite authors include Sharon Creech, who won a Newbery Award for "Walk Two
Moons"; Philip Pullman with his "Dark Materials" series ("Golden Compass,"
"Amber Spyglass," and "Subtle Knife"); Chris Crutcher with his stories of
athletes and misfits; and Robert Cormier's dark thrillers, including "I Am
And, finally, some books that aren't yet on the awards or bestseller lists
but receive special notice from educators.
Many students (as well as their parents) have been charmed by "Because of
Winn-Dixie" by Kate DiCamillo, a poignant story of a lonely girl finding
friendship and learning about tolerance.
Graham Salisbury wrote "Under the Blood Red Sun" and other stories set in
Hawaii - which appeal to a male audience.
And "Esperanza Rising" by Pam Munoz Ryan is a wonderful historical novel, set
in the 1930s, about a privileged Mexican girl whose life changes drastically
when she and her newly widowed mother go to California to begin a new life as
Full HTML version of this story which may include photos, graphics, and
NAPLES, Fla. (May 19) - Nearly 13,000 high school seniors in Florida will not
graduate as scheduled this year because they failed to pass a newly required
state achievement test.
Some school boards around the state have voted to allow seniors who met all
graduation requirements, aside from passing the Florida Comprehensive
Achievement Test, to participate in commencement ceremonies, although they
won't receive a diploma.
But South Florida's black community leaders and legislators plan a protest
this week, denouncing the FCAT as unfair to minority students. They want Gov.
Jeb Bush to put aside the consequences for students who failed this year's
test and re-examine the FCAT policies.
The protesters are calling for boycotts of the Florida Lottery, the state's
citrus industry and its major theme parks, among other measures.
Bush administration officials have said they won't set aside the results and
the governor has criticized the protesters, noting that scores have gone up
since the test was started in 1998 and minority students have made some of
the biggest gains.
``This is a time to celebrate, this is not a time to boycott,'' Bush said
This is the first year that seniors have been required to pass the test,
which measures reading, writing and math skills, before graduating. Those
failing are roughly one of every 11 seniors.
Schradaath Charles is one of 27 seniors at Naples High who have met all the
requirements necessary to receive a diploma - except passing the FCAT.
Charles, 18, spoke almost no English when she came to the United States four
years ago from her native Haiti.
With the new school board ruling, Charles can don a cap and gown, even though
she won't get a diploma on graduation night.
``I'm really happy I get to walk with my friends,'' Charles said. ``I'm not
going to give up and I'm going to do everything I can to pass (the FCAT).''
Naples High counselor Bernardo Torres said he'd like to see the state
implement a different FCAT scoring system, especially in reading, for
students who are still learning English.
In Haines City, 82 seniors - more than 25 percent of the senior class - are
being denied graduation because of the FCAT, principal Duane Collins said.
Haines City has Polk County's highest percentage of students for whom English
is a second language.
``It's easy to be upset over generalities. ... (But) the schools are not
failing the kids,'' Collins said. ``I'm just not sure we're being treated
fairly with the grading system.''
Seniors have had at least five opportunities to take the FCAT - once as
sophomores, twice more as juniors and twice more as seniors. Those still
seeking their diplomas after graduation day can continue taking the test
05/19/03 11:44 EDT
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press.
Norman A. Stahl
Professor and Chair
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
Phone: (815) 753-9032
FAX: (815) 753-8563
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