Long papers in high school? Many college freshmen say they never had to do one.

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By Jay Mathews
Thursday, July 15, 2010

Kate Simpson is a full-time English professor at the Middletown, Va., campus of Lord Fairfax Community College. She saw my column about Prince George's County history teacher Doris Burton lamenting the decline of research skills in high school, as changing state and local course requirements and grading difficulties made required long essays a thing of the past.

So Simpson gave her freshman English students a writing assignment.

Simpson noted my complaint that few American high-schoolers, except those in International Baccalaureate programs, were ever asked to do a research project as long as 4,000 words. Was I right or wrong? Did her students feel prepared for college writing? The timing was good because her classes had just finished a three-week research writing project in which they had to cite sources, do outlines, write and revise drafts.

She said she discovered that 40 percent of her 115 students thought that their high schools had not prepared them for college-level writing. Only 23 percent thought they had those writing skills. Other responses were mixed.

Twenty-nine percent "felt that students should be taught to write lengthy papers in high school," Simpson reported. Seven percent "felt that long papers were not necessary but that emphasizing writing across the disciplines would be enough for students to learn how to focus on a topic and follow through with concepts," she said.

Here is what some of her freshmen said:

"Not once in my four years of high school was I required to turn in a paper of over 1,000 words."

"My high school instructors didn't have time to grade or teach . . . longer, in-depth papers. It was hard transitioning from high school with no writing experience to college."

"I was not required to write long papers ever. The teachers claimed that it would be too much to grade."

"My [high school] teachers assigned small [papers]; assignments that have not proved beneficial in the long run."

One student who was home-schooled in high school praised the Seton Home Study School program, which required a lot of writing. But another said, "I hated writing [and] convinced my mom to stop making me write."

Some were lucky. "I had excellent English teachers who assigned papers almost weekly and had us writing every day," one student said. Another said that more high school writing was necessary but that my call for more 4,000-word (about 16 pages) papers was too much. "I was never assigned a paper needing more than 2,000 words, yet I am confident that my research skills still stand strong," the student said.

In what many teachers of my acquaintance would consider an understatement, Simpson said that "students do not always embrace the learning opportunities that fill the school day." In other words, teachers have to be persistent and tough.

"Plenty of books detailing various methods of teaching writing attempt to maximize student success and minimize educators' time and level of disillusionment," she wrote. "The truth is that learning to write takes a great deal of practice, and giving students feedback takes time and effort."

That responsibility falls more heavily on college professors such as Simpson than it should. I sense some high schools are getting the message. The ability to research questions and explain the results clearly is needed not just in college but in just about every trade or profession, and in life. Our teenagers will complain when we make them do it, but someday some of them might tell us, as they did Simpson, they were glad they did.

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