Keep writing assessment intact

Sightlines are hard to keep when real money's on the table.

And that is what's happening right now in Salem, where $3 million stacked on the table but designated for writing assessments in public schools may go away as part of the broader effort to trim the state's budget.

We respect the impulse to cut and leave no corner of government unexamined. But this $3 million should stay in play. The real cost of cutting it will be too high over time, exceeding the $3 million it hurts to spend now even as other services decline.

Oregon's students are in a hard spot. The high school four-year graduation rate is extremely low, setting many of our young folks up for a hard, low- or no-wage future, in some cases on the needier margins of society.

A key predictor of academic and life success is the ability not only to read but also to express oneself in words by penning or typing them. Yet research shows that writing is a complex function, one requiring the author to summon many fields of mastery into one place at one time so as to be understood. And we're talking basic writing here, nothing fancy.

It may be why many colleges, some of them prestigious four-year universities, have remedial writing programs — they must to get their otherwise accomplished freshmen up to speed if they are to succeed academically.

Yet it may also be why Oregon's writing assessment is among the easier, targeted cuts by legislators — writing is difficult to gauge with standardized certainty, unlike the binary truths of math that any volunteer can check off using a test key. Writing-test evaluators, it turns out, need to possess a firm grasp of grammar, language and assertion in order to make any writing assessment worth it. Yet these people who make often subjective judgments claim most of the $3 million in pay.

The other reason it might seem an easy cut is that local school districts ought to be doing this sort of thing anyway. We share that sentiment. But in many cases they do not, or not well enough. And a wide variation in writing competence across Oregon students could hurt us in the coming years as rigorous common core state standards kick in. The cut would also force some school districts to hire trained writing scorers, shifting costs to the local level.

Three million dollars is a lot of money. That's especially so when the Oregon Department of Education's general fund operating budget hovers at about $34 million.

But it is time in this hard budget moment to consider the long-term costs to all Oregonians of sending more students into high school unprepared or out of high school unprepared. Joblessness, dimmed life prospects, the drift by some to subsidized segments of society would exact a toll not only from them but all Oregonians.

The $3 million should stay on the table to help our public school students. But it should come with a demand by legislators that test scorers show how their work reveals performance in such a way that students and teachers can map the route to measurable improvement — and find the destination.

The state Department of Education could and should be held accountable for making sure the $3 million does precisely what it is intended to do: help our young people to write competently.

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