State keyboard push could cut into cursive writing
Editor's note: To clarify this story published Aug. 21, state board of education officials said Illinois has never required cursive as part of the elementary curriculum. The state, however, has adopted the Common Core standards, a national program that outlines what students should be learning at each grade level. These standards include keyboard efficiency, which some educators fear will de-emphasize the teaching of cursive writing to elementary students.
The state of Illinois may keep chipping away at requirements and testing for writing, but that doesn't mean your child won't be able to read this story or endorse a check.
The Illinois State Board of Education dropped the written section of the Prairie State Achievement Exam for 11th-graders to save about $2.4 million in the 2011-2012 school year. In addition, the state is shifting toward keyboarding as a core component of the elementary curriculum, which some educators fear will erase lessons in cursive writing.
It is the second time in as many years that the state has trimmed writing assessments.
In the 2010-2011 school year, the state cut the writing assessment in the Illinois Standards Achievement Test for grades 3, 5, 6 and 8.
Parents fear that the state's decision to drop the written test will give school districts a reason to relax standards.
"It will be an excuse to drop it," said Hillary Schneider, the mother of a freshman and a junior at Bartlett High School. "It's just a matter of time before the schools drop it because the state is no longer funding it. They will do anything they can to cut costs."
Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the decision was fiscal, based on the
state cutting about $270 million from the education budget.
"We had to look for ways to live within that budget and this is one aspect that was cut," Fergus said. "It was not a decision that was made lightly. Writing remains one of the core standards, so schools will still teach writing."
And school leaders and educators say just because the state doesn't require it or test it doesn't mean they are going change how or what they teach.
"While it's disappointing that the state decided to discontinue this assessment, the decision will in no way change District 300's curriculum or our emphasis on writing skills," said Allison Strupeck, spokeswoman for the Carpentersville-based district, which has more than 20,000 students. "Whether or not it's tested by the state, writing will stay a fundamental area of focus for all District 300 students. We will continue to instruct our students on the craft and importance of writing, both for their creative and analytical purposes."
But Barbara Kato, director of the Chicago Writing Project, said without the test some teachers may shift their attention to areas that they consider more important.
"Good teachers and good schools will continue teaching writing," Kato said. "But it is taking it off the front burner, and plenty of people are going to expend more time on reading and math because they're subjects that we still have high-stakes tests for."
Taking emphasis away from writing, Scheider said, will send students to college or into the workplace at a deficit.
"If they can't prove their ability now, we don't know if they have the skills to succeed," Schneider said. "Writing is one of those skills. We are sending kids out unprepared."
Schneider's 14-year-old daughter, Rebecca Hymer, said writing skills are essential to succeed beyond high school.
"Everyone needs to know how to write," said Hymer, a Bartlett High School freshman. "It is crucial to everything. It helps you read, and you need to be able to explain something or why you want something."
New test coming
However, school districts across the suburbs said the next generation of assessments under the Common Core standards, adopted by 44 out of 50 states, will continue to emphasize writing as it is phased in from now to 2014-2015. The new national curriculum outlines what students are expected to learn in each grade from kindergarten through high school.
"It would be foolish to go away from writing at this point," said Greg Walker, assistant superintendent for secondary education in Elgin Area School District U-46. "Everything that is outlined in the Common Core points to students being able to write for a variety of purposes, like presenting a cohesive thought or supporting or opposing an argument. Those skills are important for life and work, not just college."
The standards for English language arts and literacy in social studies, science and technical subjects include writing, said Theresa Busch, assistant superintendent of instruction at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211.
"This standard stresses the importance of a writing-reading connection by requiring students to draw and write about evidence from literary and informational texts," Busch said.
Still, some educators say the suspension of the writing assessment at the state level removes one measure districts use to track student performance.
"It takes away some of that feedback that we used to get," said Deborah Larson, Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "But we have built-in feedback with teachers working on common assessments within departments."
Walker, of U-46, said dropping the assessment is sending the wrong message to students.
"If the state had an assessment that everybody thought was important … and then they drop it, what's that saying to the students?" Walker said "They think, 'If the state doesn't think it is important, why should I?'"
While the Common Core standards emphasize writing, the new curriculum underscores the need for typing skills over writing in cursive.
"The goal is to have fewer, clearer and higher standards focused on college and career expectations," Illinois State Board of Education Board Chairman Jesse H. Ruiz said in a statement. "Our board supports these new standards because they are essential for our students, for their futures and for the future economy of Illinois."
But elementary teachers say teaching students to join their letters is fundamental to learning and life.
Aleta Piper, a third-grade teacher at Liberty Elementary School in Carpentersville and her colleague, Michele Mannella, a fifth-grade teacher, still include lessons on cursive in their classrooms. Cursive writing also is part of District 300's report card for elementary students.
"I know it is generational, but it is a rite of passage learning how to write cursive," Mannella said. "It also develops their fine motor skills and there is memory and thinking involved. They have to think about what each letter looks like and how to make that letter."
Piper said she began her lesson on cursive on Thursday to cheers from her students.
"When they see cursive on the list of things they are going to learn in the third grade, they get excited," said Piper, who said a third-grader could forge her signature because her handwriting is the same as it was when she was 8 years old. "They actually find that it is a lot faster to write their notes in cursive."
By the end of the third grade, Piper said, her students have their signatures down pat.
"What baffles me is how are these students going to sign their name?" asked. "Did the state legislators consider that?"
That same question puzzled Streamwood High School senior Jacqueline Martinez, the student adviser on the Elgin Area School District U-46 board. But Martinez said parents are split on the benefits of cursive writing.
"Some parents feel the lack of proficiency in cursive writing is indicative of a general decline in overall literacy skills, while others insist that the movement toward typewritten communication is simply a sign of technology evolving," Martinez said. "Personally, I believe the importance of proper handwriting has diminished in recent years."
Despite the state loosening its expectations for cursive writing, Donna Werderich, assistant professor of language arts at Northern Illinois University, said there are connections between good penmanship and grades.
"Students that have better cursive typically score better on test results," Werderich said. "We don't have data that shows the effects of taking cursive away, but there is data showing a correlation between putting pen to paper and the thought process; expressing thoughts and processing information."