English teachers will tell you the only way to learn how to write is to write. They will also tell you assigning the amount of writing some college-bound students need is easier said than done in your typical high school.
"One hundred and fifty papers at three pages a pop, that's a substantial amount of paperwork to get through after your 7 to 3:30 working job and then coaching and extra-curricular activities," said Jessica Hedrick, a young, energetic English teacher at Century High School in Rochester.
Hedrick's enthusiasm for her job does not make her want to add an additional 50 hours to her work week to grade that many papers on a regular basis.
"Unfortunately, a lot of teachers don't assign writing because they think that's a lot of papers to read," she said.
Many high school students getting good grades in English and who pass Minnesota's basic skills test at the end of their senior year are shocked to learn they need help with the basics of writing when they get to college.
Paul Carney, an English instructor at the Minnesota State Community and Technical College-Fergus Falls, said the writing logjam is one of the many factors that produce high school graduates that are unprepared.
"To me it's analagous to a hospital discharging sick people and telling them they're well," Carney said. "I don't think there's anything deceptive or covert going on here. I just think you've got a culture that's perpetuating this without knowing this is going on."
Carney has developed a method for breaking up the writing logjam in high school, and giving students valuable feedback at the same time.
Working with grants from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, his method employs 12 expert readers -- six English instructors from high schools and six from colleges. The readers use a list of criteria Carney developed over two years, with input from numerous high school and college teachers.
The student's teacher assigns an essay. The finished essay then goes to the readers, who determine whether the student has met the threshold considered college-ready. Carney envisions the possibility that a single essay could function both as a high school exit exam and a college placement test.
They got it. And they also got it that if they had a chance to do it over again they could do better.High school English teacher Jean Marvin
Normandale Community College English instructor Michael Berndt, one of the readers for the project, said the Carney system gives early feedback to students. In addition, it bridges a chasm between the two education levels that has not been addressed adequately before.
"One of the benefits of this project is you've had more conversations than normally happen," Berndt said. "College instructors, high school instructors are tremendously busy."
Eight of the readers must approve of an essay before it's considered college ready writing. The idea is to give the test to high school students while they're juniors to give them an idea of where their writing stands early enough for them to improve.
Rochester's Century High School is one of a half-dozen schools where Carney has tested the system he calls a "college-readiness rubric."
Century English Department Chair Jean Marvin called Carney's method smart, effective and easy to use. Only about one in five of Marvin's 11th grade writers made the grade. But, Marvin said, it's better for students to face any shortcomings now rather than when they take their college placement exams.
"I think the students were not at all happy to hear that," she said. "But in processing that and what they did right and what they did wrong and going over the rubric with them, they got it. And they also got it that if they had a chance to do it over again they could do better."
Marvin appreciates how the system gives specific, individual feedback to the students without adding to the teachers' overall workload.
Junior Andrew Keech is one of the few Century High School students whose essays got a college-ready rating. He said the evaluation gave him a valuable outside look at his abilities.
"(With) six high school high school teachers and six college professors, you feel like they probably know what they're talking about," Keech said. "And it's 12 people, so it's not just one person grading it."
The system is so far only in the testing phase. One problem to work out is how to fund a ready stable of competent readers to assess a large number student essays. State education officials are looking at Carney's method as a way to update current basic skills test for graduating seniors.