MOULTRIE -- Colquitt County High School graduation writing test scores have dropped dramatically, and educators are scrambling to determine if it's just a hole in the road or quicksand.

"I'm going to hope it's a one-year aberration," Superintendent Leonard McCoy said earlier this week.

"We had the highest scores that we've ever had in writing in the history of the high school, and the decline was solely unexpected. At this particular time, there have not been any particular changes made that would have caused this, that I could attribute to any significant instructional changes. When it comes to test scores, generally you look to trends."

Scores dropped from 95 percent passing in school year 2000-01 to 86 this year. Past percentages inched up to 93 in 1999-2000 from a steady 92 from 1996-97 to 1998-99.

Juniors took the writing test in October, the first test given in a series of graduation tests. The rest are in March, along with an opportunity for retesting.

Scores across Georgia dropped five points to 89 from 94 percent passing last year, Georgia Department of Education Director of Media Relations Amanda Seals said. In 1999-2000, the percentage of students passing in the state was 91.

"Our writing program has always been very strong and has not changed and the teachers know how to teach writing and they teach writing. Last year, the scores were as high as they've ever been. But a drop this significant, it's got to be something with the scoring. I'm not sure what it is. We're working on it," Secondary Curriculum Director Mary Ann Stone said.

The writing test changes. The topics and the prompts are never the same, Stone said, but the topic this year was not difficult.

"If the entire State of Georgia dropped at the same rate that we did, then I would have probably said to you that it has to be a change in the test or the scoring of it. But even though the State of Georgia dropped, we dropped more. I'm not looking for excuses, and I can't use that as a reason," McCoy said.

"There's nothing I can point to that is significantly different that might have been a mistake in the organization that would have caused the drop."

Stone doesn't think the lower scores are indications of bad scores to come.

"You can't compare the writing tests to the content area tests," Stone said. "I don't see this class as a class that is less capable than any other class that we've had. I don't see all the other test scores dropping 10 percentage points."

Colquitt County High School Principal Melton Callahan said he wishes he could put a finger on the problem, but right now he can't. He did say that the writing test is more subjective than the other subject tests which are multiple choice.

Two readers of the test grade students on four areas: content and organization; style; conventions and sentence formations.

The state education department noted score drops in the areas of conventions, which is basically appropriate use of standard American English writing principles, Seals said, and sentence formation, which involves appropriate punctuation, complete sentences and so forth.

In the writing test, students have to compose a persuasive essay on a given topic. The scoring company that contracted with the state noticed a statewide trend of emotional essays rather than persuasive, she said.

"Sometimes when you're emotional, it's hard to be persuasive," Seals said.

The education department will wait until next year to see if a trend of lower scores emerges before it makes any changes, she said.

This year's sophomore class will be the last to take the end-of-the-year graduation tests, school officials said.

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