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LeagueTLC Innovation Express
Exploring Issues, Innovations, and New Developments with Information Technology Professionals

Aligning Writing Instruction in Secondary and Postsecondary Institutions

Tidewater Community College, VA

Collaboration (for common goals)

The challenge of developmental education is a longstanding issue of American Community Colleges' open-door mission. Despite seminal studies of developmental education needs in the 1980s, and national program development and assessment measures of the 1990s, the problem of the underprepared college student remains. According to Robert McCabe in No One to Waste: A Report to Public Decision-Makers and Community College Leaders (2000), nearly one-third of U.S. students entering higher education are academically underprepared, and more than a million students enroll in community college remedial education each year. John and Suanne Roueche warn in High Stakes, High Performance: Making Remedial Education Work (1999) that students' skills are at the lowest point in American history. The American Association of Community Colleges released several recommendations to strengthen remedial education programs; among them are "Foster collaborations with educational agencies in the community; among college, middle school, and high school instructors regarding requirements for success in college-level courses; with four-year colleges and university to strengthen their assessment efforts and remedial initiative...and conduct staff development and training program for faculty, staff, and administrators." 

Despite the research and recommendations on remedial education, little information has historically been shared past the walls of each institution and opportunities for partnerships in professional workshops have been virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, in the secondary educational factions, examination of the senior year of high school indicates students are generally unmotivated, and teachers and administrators have often viewed the final year of high school as a transition period in which senior students disengage from their environment. Surveys by James Rosenbaum in 1998 revealed work-bound and college-bound students alike felt "bad school performance in high school is not necessarily a barrier to attaining their future careers." In June 2000, the Commission on the High School Senior Year, U.S. Department of Education, was formed to "make recommendations on how to make the last years of high school, especially the senior year, more productive and how to improve transitions to college." Their overall findings indicate students needed more opportunities to enroll in upper-level coursework. 

In May 2001, the Commission on the High School Senior Year concluded that the high school senior year is largely a waste and that schools nationwide are failing to prepare graduates for college or work. The Commission published Raising Our Sights: No High School Senior Left Behind in October 2001. Recommendations were to improve alignment among secondary and postsecondary institutions, raise student achievement, and provide more learning alternatives. The report described the need for a more unified system of education from preschool to postsecondary education with integrated standards, curriculum, and assessment measures. For schools to accomplish these goals, the commission referenced 20 states that have created P - 16 councils to "ramp up performance, improve teacher preparation, and strengthen relationships between schools and two- and four-year institutions" (14). The report encourages K-12 and higher education to form a common, focused approach to helping students reach higher standards. 

Background and Origins 
Historically, high school teachers have not been given time to cooperatively plan and refine best practices to teach writing; college faculty, often unaware of high school teaching issues, have not been exposed to high school curriculum to align their instruction with secondary practices. Meanwhile, high school administrators have been concerned with hiring teachers and maintaining graduation rates; college administrators have been concerned with increasing enrollment numbers and meeting accreditation standards. In addition, each institution has been tasked with widespread assessment in response to the public's concern for quality education. 

Noting history, performance, and need, Tidewater Community College (TCC) faculty proposed a collaborative project with the local school district that addressed the need to work in partnership to quantify instruction with comparative data; moreover, the focus of the project was to improve the quality of the experience in the senior year of high school to better prepare recent high school graduates for success in college-level courses. 

Finding that large numbers of graduates of Salem High School (SHS) in Virginia Beach, VA, were being required to enroll in remedial/developmental English courses at the Virginia Beach Campus of Tidewater Community College (TCC), high school English teachers questioned the diagnostic/placement tool used to place students in freshman college transfer or remedial/developmental composition courses. In 1997, the college responded by selecting a team of English faculty to research student readiness for college, writing assessment, and composition pedagogy. High school teachers and senior English students were surveyed to determine their respective needs and perceptions related to writing instruction. The surveys revealed that few high school teachers had been trained in writing pedagogy or had opportunities for professional development in teaching composition. Surveys also indicated that most high school students reacted negatively to assigned writing tasks and were uncomfortable with composing for the English classroom. 

State and local reports substantiated survey findings and local trends. In the State of Virginia, (1) high school seniors were graduating with deficient writing skills and (2) postsecondary developmental programs were expanding. In 1995-1996, one in four Virginia public high school graduates enrolled in remedial classes in Virginia state-supported colleges. Likewise, in 1995-1996, high school graduates attending TCC were placed in developmental composition at an average rate of 48.4 percent. 

Tidewater Community College and Salem High School (SHS) Faculty acknowledged little understanding of each other's curriculum or writing standards. Faculty from both institutions met and determined a need for collaboration to identify strategies and implement activities to improve placement and preparation of students for college composition. To align writing instruction from secondary to postsecondary institutions, the college secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) to fund a joint problem-solving partnership with TCC and SHS, part of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS). 

Project Development
Prior to the grant-funded project, almost no collaboration existed between the secondary and postsecondary institutions. Each institution operated in its own system with little or no dialogue between faculties and negligible communication between student bodies. Although student assessment data were gathered at each institution, no evaluation of student success was shared; thus, neither institution was aware of any inherent problems in student achievement. Likewise, students enrolling in community colleges across the nation found themselves underprepared at a rate of 40 percent. Students assumed teaching faculties at the separate institutions were collaborating and that their high school curriculum was developed to prepare them for college work. Aligning writing instruction with secondary and postsecondary institutions was necessary to create a seamless transition for graduating high school students preparing to enroll in college courses.

The use of a single indicator of student readiness for college work was another concern of this collaborative project. The traditional placement and assessment practice at TCC, and many colleges across the nation, is to administer a commercially produced tool, which is essentially an editing test. Advocates of this standardized process purport the advantages inherent in its reliability, expense, and application. Opponents respond that multiple-choice examinations do not provide authentic writing assessment.

In the face of great educational challenges, shrinking college budgets, and growing populations of developmental learners, TCC and SHS Project Staff identified three main goals of the project.
(1) Develop and disseminate a model for staff development in writing instruction.
(2) Improve student writing and increase the number of students competent to take college composition.
(3) Validate a multiple-measures writing placement procedure. 

Develop a Model for Writing Instruction:
To develop and disseminate a model for staff development in writing instruction, successful components of the project included collaborative workshops for high school and college educators; exploration of innovative instructional strategies to promote student accountability for progress; high school writing centers for extended dialogue and practice; multiple measures of authentic assessment; and ongoing collaboration among high school teachers, students, and college faculty. 

Based on the initial survey of SHS English teachers, professional development opportunities were implemented to enable instructors from both institutions to meet, discuss, and create improved approaches to writing instruction to better align their respective curriculum. Six primary instructional needs were identified. 
(1) Engage students' interest in writing.
(2) Clearly articulate college writing requirements.
(3) Emphasize instruction on editing and proofreading.
(4) Clarify requirements of the Virginia Standards of Learning.
(5) Revise syllabi to include collaborative writing strategies.
(6) Develop ongoing teacher self-assessment. 

Weekly roundtables served as an arena for professional discussion of topics and strategies; moreover, a minimum of four workshops were developed and facilitated by the college site leader to foster a re-examination of instructional standards, identification of common strands, classroom experimentation, and implementation of reflective teaching practices. In addition to project personnel, English faculties from all area high schools and TCC campuses were invited to attend. Each workshop was a full day session with presentations and discussions related to concerns and problems voiced by writing teachers. Workshops were held in neutral territory sites, such as community clubhouses, and meeting rooms were staged as round table forums to create an atmosphere for cross-institutional sharing. Beyond leadership, TCC provided audiovisual support and refreshments. Staff development topics included "Engaging Student Interest in Writing," "Classroom Management & The Revision Process," and "The Changing Role of the Instructor." 

Dr. Kathleen Yancey, author of Portfolios in the Writing Classroom, was contracted as a writing consultant to the project in 1998. Dr. Yancey worked with secondary and postsecondary instructors over the three-year period to develop and refine portfolio pedagogy for instruction and assessment. She has also been contracted by VBCPS to assist K-12 teachers in adopting portfolio methodology. By 2004, the school system serving 78,000 students intends to have portfolios in place as institutional evaluations of classroom instruction. A review of faculty evaluations of project workshops reflects the high value placed on these activities. Specific comments about how participants planned to apply the information gained in these sessions reflect the relevancy and importance of the workshops to professional development and classroom application. Participants were expressive about their goals.


"Focus my teaching and emphasize what I value when assessing student writing." 
"Think how to move us to portfolio evaluation for exit purposes." 
"Develop life-long independent learners" 

Improve Student Writing and Placement Progress:
This multi-faceted approach, collaboration among college faculty, high school instructors, and students, resulted in significant and immediate gains. Institutional partnership activities included high school students' touring the college campus and meeting with administrators, faculties, and college students; receiving college library cards; and using computer research and laboratory resources. A letter writing dialogue between high school seniors and college freshmen provided another opportunity for interpersonal communication. In their correspondence with college students, high school seniors were exposed firsthand to the importance of careful preparation for higher education. Prompted to relate what a student should do to prepare for college writing, one college freshman responded, "The main strategies in becoming successful in college English are 1) go to all your classes 2) take excellent notes 3) write in a very clear style without 'rambling' 4) be prepared to write a lot." 

Secondary students were enthusiastic about this activity as demonstrated by a high school senior's comment, "Being able to write to a college student and get advice for next year has been wonderful. You [the college student] have answered many of my questions and given me very good tips." Collaborative activities enabled students to recognize that high school achievement is highly relevant to their future goals. 

To provide a writing community, an extended audience for student writing and practice in self-assessment and reflection, the college sponsored a high school writing center modeled on the college version. Trained by the project director, advanced high school students and project teachers assisted students in planning, editing, and revising compositions. The college leader led one-hour training sessions in the high school for dual enrollment and advanced placement students to learn and practice writing center tutorial strategies. The college facilitated the establishment of the writing center by providing writing handbooks, professionally developed worksheets, and other ancillary materials. The center, based in a teacher's classroom, included computer access to online resources and a telephone to enable students to call the college's Grammar Hotline. The center hours included time before and after school, during student lunches, and study halls. As the center expanded its offerings each year, the number of high school student visits increased. In the second year, 1090 student visits were recorded; overall, during its three years of operation, over 3000 students and 45 teachers from every department in the high school used the writing center services. Students who volunteered as consultants also improved their composition skills. One student remarked, "Working in the writing center helped me help others write. Because of this, I improved myself." In Year Two of the project, the college sponsored a second writing center at an additional high school site; a third one was established at another high school by the final year of the project. 

Validate Multiple Measures of Placement: 
Initially, time and money needed to be allocated to train teachers from both institutions to develop rubrics, identify anchor papers, and read portfolios for college placement; however, as demonstrated in this project, by the third year, experienced readers reviewed portfolios and placed students reliably and efficiently. Each year of the project, students accumulated and revised their compositions for presentation portfolios; during the year, high school teachers and students reviewed the work noting progression of learning and skills. Students are now successfully placed in college-level work through a collaborative high school/college evaluation of their portfolios. Portfolio assessment for writing placement by the college has demonstrated support for authentic student performance as well as affirmed high school writing achievement. As a result of this piloting of portfolio assessment, the college is expanding this alternative placement method to other area high school graduates. 

Moreover, students placed by multiple measures of authentic assessment consistently out-place and outperform traditionally placed college composition students. Project students who enrolled in TCC in the fall of 2000 and placed into college composition using project placement instruments achieved an 87 percent success rate as compared to the control group's 70 percent success rate. Success rate was determined by earning an A, B, or C from a given course of study. 

Project Evaluation and Results
As a result of project initiatives applied in a focused setting, high school and college students have demonstrated improved writing performances and learned to value their writing experiences. Since 1998, approximately 200 senior high school students in the program were randomly assigned to English teachers, who voluntarily participated in the program. These teachers worked closely with college faculty to monitor student achievement. All senior sections project teachers became the study group students, while students in other senior classes became the control group students. Given the transitory nature of this area, approximately 150 students participated in pre and post testing each year. While pre and post test data measured improvements in student writing skills, study and control group comparative data provided information about the singular effects of project participation. In each of the three years' data, a significant relationship was found between student participation in the study versus the control group. 

Students in the study group and a similar control group were assessed at the beginning and closing of the school years using COMPASS, timed writing samples, and at the end of the year, study-group students submitted portfolios of their work for placement purposes. Students placed by multiple measures of authentic assessment consistently out-placed and outperformed traditionally placed college composition students. Project students who enrolled in TCC in the fall of 2000 and placed into college composition using project placement instruments achieved an 87 percent success rate as compared to the control group's 70 percent success rate. An A, B, or C in a given course of study determined success rate.

Following project objectives, faculty from both institutions convened regularly to review instructional strategies. Through cooperative participation in professional workshops, high school teachers from 12 VBCPS schools and 4 campuses of TCC developed innovative approaches to teaching and evaluating writing. Anecdotal and statistical data demonstrated immediate and dramatic improvement in student readiness and success in college composition as a result of this project model. As a result of project activities, high school students in the study group consistently outperformed control-group students each year. Data in 1999-2000 revealed that students made a 33.75 percent increase in readiness for college composition. Moreover, teacher and student confidence as partners in the writing classroom flourished. 

Pre, post, and tracking data substantiate the contributions of project activities to increasing student competence to enroll in and successfully complete college-level composition. According to project evaluator Dr. Barbara Bonham, Appalachian State University, "The data clearly indicates improvement in writing skills of the high school seniors participating in the project." Each year, approximately 20 percent more study group students placed into nondevelopmental courses. In her observation and review of the project, Dr. Bonham reports: 


Students who were in the study group were placed in English courses using their COMPASS scores, writing sample scores, and portfolio score. Students in the control group were placed using TCC's traditional method of examining the student's COMPASS score and writing sample score. Although this was the first year this data could be collected, it was an early indication that the use of portfolio assessment increases the accuracy of placement as well as contributes to students' higher achievement. 

It should be noted that 82 percent of the students in the project group who placed in ENG 111 had earned a grade of C or better compared with only 50 percent of the control group students. Data from TCC's developmental English program reveals that the pass rate generally averages about 70 percent. So not only were more students placed in ENG 111, but a higher percentage of them passed the course with a C or above.

The use of portfolio assessment not only impacts the ability of faculty to assess students and more accurately place them in an appropriate course but also is a very effective instructional strategy. There was a high level of motivation and interest among the students participating in classes in which the portfolios were used. Students were eager to share their portfolios with me as I visited their classes. They had accomplished something for which they had ownership and great pride. This is not easily accomplished with high school students. The students were proud of their writing and enjoyed the process of writing. This is certainly an accomplishment.

Along with quantifiable data, observers of project students and readers of their portfolios surmised students had learned to value themselves as writers. To demonstrate that this increasing sense of confidence was the result of project activities, teachers in the control and study groups administered a locus of control instrument at the beginning and end of the school year. This attitudinal tool identified student perceptions of internal versus external control of their academic environment. The results further demonstrated the value of participation in the project as students in the study group had an average gain in internal control of 59.3 points over the year, as opposed to the control group's loss of 11.7 points. 

In addition to student results, the participating teachers at the high school site became mentors for their peers and models for writing instruction. When teachers were surveyed about the effects on their teaching as a result of participation in this project, their reflections confirmed the professional value of collaboration. One teacher wrote: 


When I began this project, I was a typical by the book type of teacher. I relied heavily on the curriculum guides, worksheets, handouts, etc. As far as writing went, I was weak in many areas. Some of them were developing ideas, motivating students to complete work, and editing their work. My strengths were that I wanted to be successful and help my students to become better writers... Now, I actually look forward to getting my students involved in writing assignments and helping them overcome their own fears about writing... Having attended many interesting writing workshops in national conferences, I always want to try new and exciting ways to encourage writing... My suggestion to ensure the grant's objectives would be to not be afraid to try something new...no matter how silly or stupid it appears on the surface. The students seem to react positively to that concept.

Another high school project teacher echoed with admonition, "We as teachers should always embrace change." At the conclusion of the grant period, the teachers from Salem High and the project director presented an all-day workshop for college and high school faculties to share strategies for teaching composition, facilitating a writing center, and implementing portfolios in the classroom. Additionally, the project teachers created and the project director edited a compendium of teaching ideas and a writing center handbook, published by the college for dissemination locally and nationally. 

College faculty who participated in workshops with high school teachers returned to their classrooms with renewed vigor. One instructor wrote:


Participating in the project has caused me to evaluate both my teaching style and my expectation of the students enrolled in my classes. I have returned to requiring students to write a narrative essay at the beginning of the semester since much of the high school writing seems to center on the writer's self. Also, each student is required to keep all of his or her graded essays and accompanying rough drafts in a folder-similar to a portfolio. The contents of this folder become the sources of a self-evaluation of the progress the student made in English Composition. The greatest strength of the project might be the interactions between the high school English teachers and the community college faculty. After participating in open discussions, each side understands the other a bit more and assigns less blame.

Each opportunity for collaboration has resulted in renewed enthusiasm for teaching and learning. Participants in workshops have praised the opportunities to network and share ideas across institutional lines. Students who have transferred to the college have reported the value of project strategies in their coursework. Teachers in area high schools who have been exposed to the team approach have requested further collaborative opportunities with the college. Two and four-year college faculties who have attended state and national professional conference presentations made by the project personnel have requested assistance in duplicating the model's objectives and activities at their remote sites. 

Lessons Learned
To undertake a project of this nature, organizational policies related to traditional teacher responsibilities needed to be altered and expanded. As a project director, I have gained a myriad of insights into a range of topics, from collaborative strategies to interventions that improve student preparation for college composition. The overriding motif of all the progress that has been accomplished is the vital role of the teacher in making a difference in the success of the student. When teachers are given the tools and support they need to instruct, students succeed. As a result of this project, teachers have realized that they can teach more with less; correspondingly, they have recognized the value of emphasizing the writing process and de-emphasizing coverage of extensive bodies of textual content. Despite time restraints and multiple social and educational issues inherent in the final year of high school, teachers have adopted a focused approach to writing instruction and altered their roles from dispensers of information to coaches of composition. Portfolio instruction has led to a change in the manner in which students and teachers approach writing. One project teacher described this change: "I enjoy the quiet time at my desk with the student and I realize that class can function without the teacher standing at the front of the room. I am needed now as a tour guide. I can instruct in an unobtrusive manner and the results are outstanding because the students are empowered to complete all the tasks because of their sense of ownership." Portfolios have also provided a vital link between the high school classroom and college entrance hurdles as they demonstrate not only the increased responsibility of students to improve and exhibit their skills but also confirm the value of high school writing instructional practices when used for placement purposes. With ongoing opportunities for teachers to dialogue with their colleagues in the high school and at the college, teachers have been able to experiment with innovation strategies to better align instruction between secondary and postsecondary institutions. 

Administering this project has prompted personnel to develop mediation, negotiation, and coping skills to work through problems related to personnel, calendars, schedules, and budgets. Each member of the project needs to be nurtured and rewarded for contributions; likewise, each member needs to be accountable for time and monies expended to effect project objectives. Regular communication is essential; however, to provide meaningful structure, agendas need to be constructed with opportunities for mutual input. Progress reports need to be maintained and presented to administrators. The varying schedules of secondary and postsecondary institutions as well as working hours need to be considered in planning opportunities for discussion, professional development workshops, and student activities. Working within the parameters of three separate accounting systems (federal, state, city) requires careful attention to detail and bureaucratic sequence. The success of a collaborative project is directly related to the willingness of its participants to engage in ongoing, open communication and extend the boundaries of each institution. Collaboration requires a focused approach to dealing with issues of consequence, clear identification of stakeholders, formation of a team with common goals, opportunities for early and ongoing success, meaningful involvement, and acceptance of conflict as a natural product of innovation, change, and growth. Project members have learned to take risks and negotiate in an arena of personal and professional interaction. 

Initially, two TCC instructors co-directed the project that served approximately 200 senior English students from SHS. In Year One, the SHS instructional team included the high school English department chair, a teacher of English 12/College Composition dual enrollment, three English 12 teachers, and an alternate teacher. Over the three-year period of the project, staffing was reduced to one college director, one high school English department chair/site leader, and three English 12 teachers. The change in personnel led to further emphasis on a focused team approach to innovation and collaboration. 

Practitioners interested in replicating this model should research their sites to ensure that all members of the project team, especially from the college, are open to change, adaptable, and willing to grow. Preliminary collaborative initiatives, established cooperative activities, or both can serve as the foundation for adapting this model. College site leaders need to be selected based on demonstrated leadership at their institutions in partnership opportunities. The college should allocate sufficient time and resources to the leader to regularly meet with secondary personnel and plan collaborative activities. Administrators need to commit financial support for direct and indirect cost sharing as well as institutional support for continuation of the efforts of the project. 

As a result of "doing" this project, I have learned to listen, adjust, reinvent, and revise; more important, I have been part of a powerful movement to develop and foster partnerships across classrooms and institutions to enable teachers and students to succeed. The project has provided an arena for experimentation, innovation, and refinement of strategies to instruct and assess student writing. In each of the three years' data, a significant relationship was found between student participation in the study versus a control group. Each year, approximately 20 percent more study-group students placed into non-developmental courses. Of the students who originally placed into remedial composition, 33.75 percent made positive changes in end-of-year testing. Tracking the progress of graduating seniors further demonstrated positive effects of the project. With data substantiating the value of project activities towards increasing student competence to enroll in and successfully complete college-level composition, this collaborative model has potential to reform educational practices. Being part of a reform movement based on teachers identifying and employing solutions to problems has confirmed my belief in working within and among institutions to effect change. Moreover, this project has brought renewed enthusiasm for addressing national concerns to both high school and college faculties. 

Project Summary
Each year has challenged participants to maintain ongoing dialogue to perpetuate collaboration in traditionally isolated settings. Collaboration is a dynamic process, one which demands commitment and flexibility. Participants need support from their peers and institutions to negotiate the changing roles inherent in partnership relations. Project personnel need to maintain open lines of communication with administrative support. To expose leaders from both institutions to project activities and results, this project utilized an advisory board with representatives from all aspects of the partnership. Meeting regularly, the board members reviewed the project and offered advice. Cooperative dissemination of project results is essential to accepting and institutionalizing project strategies. Project personnel need support from their institutions to prepare and disseminate presentation materials to local, regional, and national audiences. 

Genuine collaboration between secondary and postsecondary institutions on a faculty level continues to be uncommon. To preserve the pioneering efforts of this grant project and others in this area of interest, communication strands need to be maintained and strengthened. The efforts to bring college and high school teachers together to plan and devise collaborative strategies need to be recognized for their successes in student learning and supported institutionally for continuation. The concept of K-college education is growing with many secondary schools including postsecondary subjects in their curriculum. The fear among postsecondary educators is that this trend will lead to a dumbing-down of subject matter. Moreover, two and four-year colleges are being requested to develop placement testing in multiple academic areas to identify unprepared students. The State of Virginia is requiring public four-year colleges to assess their students' writing in the coming school year and will be releasing assessment information yearly, starting in the summer of 2002. In Bridging the Gap: High School to College Matriculation, a compilation of proceedings from the First International Meeting on Future Directions in Developmental Education in October 1999, educators raised the question: "Should the focus of developmental education be working with the high schools, working with students once they enter postsecondary institutions, or both?" This project has demonstrated the importance of college and high school faculty working together to improve student readiness and preserve the quality of college coursework. Collaboration, across institutions, is the essential component of this model. 

For more information, contact
Chris Jennings
Associate Professor or English
Director of FIPSE Writing Coalition

For questions and additional information,
connect with the authors through the
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