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In a small state, big gains on state writing scores

Motivation to write and writing achievement using Vantage Learning’s MY Access! going up at Delaware’s Red Clay Consolidated School District

When eighth graders in Red Clay Consolidated School District in New Castle County, Delaware, talk about using the Internet, they’re as likely to discuss the scores on their latest writing assignment as their instant messaging screen names.

The buzz among these students is about MY Access!?, an online writing program that provides instant feedback and scores on student writing samples. All 1,300 Red Clay eighth graders are using the program as part of an initiative to improve the district’s results on the state’s writing assessment.

“We’ve definitely seen an impact from the program,” said Jeanne Qvarnstrom, Red Clay’s supervisor of research and assessment. She said more of the district’s eighth graders are meeting the state standards for writing, and that the improvement has been especially evident among special education students.

MY Access!, from Vantage Learning in Newtown Pa, is a Web-based instructional writing program that scores student essays instantly and provides detailed feedback on a wide range of writing skills, from mechanics and style to organization and meaning. Eighth graders in all six of Red Clay’s middle schools are required to use MY Access! for 12 writing assignments during the school year; some 3,500 other students in grades 5-7 also use the program with unlimited opportunities to write and revise.

“We piloted MY Access! back in 2002 at two of our schools,” Ms. Qvarnstrom said. “The initial results were so encouraging that we’ve been expanding the implementation, using technology grants and other sources, including PTA funds since parents also see the value and understand the benefits.”

The program’s biggest advantage for teachers is a significant time savings, according to Ms. Qvarnstrom. “Students improve their writing skills through revision and feedback, and this is a very time-intensive process for teachers,” she said. “MY Access! doesn’t replace the teacher’s role, but it allows us to automate some of that process.”

A typical MY Access! assignment for Red Clay students begins in the classroom, where students are assigned a writing prompt from a large pool of topics that can be scored by the program’s artificial intelligence software engine. At the request of Red Clay’s teachers, Vantage Learning customized several of those prompts to more closely support the district’s curriculum.

In the classroom, the students do their planning, outlining and other pre-writing work. Later, in the computer lab, the library or even at home, they log onto their MY Access! assignment center and write their essays on the computer. The program includes a variety of writing tools, including a spell checker, dictionary, thesaurus, writer’s guide and graphic organizers. In addition, the program has a specialized editor and tutor that adapts to each child’s writing ability, effectively providing every student with an individualized writing coach.

"One of the reasons the teachers like MY Access! is that it allows them to spend more time giving students feedback on higher order writing and thinking skills."

When students complete their draft, the program analyzes the essay and immediately provides detailed feedback and a score on a scale of 1 to 6. The computer-generated scores have been shown to correlate very closely with scores given to essays on the same topic by experienced teachers.

“In addition to correcting mechanics, we’ve found that the program is most helpful with organization and word choice issues,” Ms. Qvarnstrom said. “Also, the scoring rubrics can be customized to meet the needs of different groups of students.”

At Red Clay, students incorporate the program’s feedback into successive drafts with the goal of incrementally improving their scores. When the scores meet a grade-appropriate proficiency level, the teachers begin reviewing the essays. “One of the reasons the teachers like MY Access! is that it allows them to spend more time giving students feedback on higher order writing and thinking skills,” said Ms. Qvarnstrom.

In a survey of the district’s eighth grade teachers, they reported being pleased with MY Access!. “The teachers like that the program gives students the opportunity to improve their writing through revision, and they also like not having to spend time scoring all those revisions,” Ms. Qvarnstrom said.

Teachers have also reported that students are more enthusiastic about writing. “Since we’ve had MY Access! there is more of a willingness to write because students know they’ll be using a program they enjoy,” said Gil Green, who uses the program with his fifth graders. “And the more children write, the better writers they’re going to become.”

For more information on MY Access!, contact Harry Barfoot III, Vice President, Vantage Learning (