Jay Waugh, a senior in an advanced English class at Fairfax County's Hayfield Secondary School, knew last year that it mattered little what kind of composition he turned in to his teacher.
"You got an A," he recalled.
But this year, he now realizes, "you've got to know what you're talking about and you've got to do it right."
The reason is that Waugh, along with every other secondary student and English teacher in Fairfax County, is a participant in an ambitious project aimed at getting students to produce at least one piece of error-free written composition four times a year.
Launched earlier this year at the direction of school Supt. S. John Davis, the project's goal is to improve writing skills by forcing students to writer andrewrite papers until they are free of errors.
"The kids are really feeling the pressure. They know we mean business and we will not accept garbage from them," says Cynthia Perrin, head of the English Department at Hayfield. "There's been a real change of attitudes."
"It ties with the superintendent's thrust for the year that we will raise our expectation of performance," says Betty Blaisdell, Fairfax County's English language curriculum specialist.
While it is perhaps the most organized, Fairfax County's program to stress writing skills is but one of several similar efforts undertaken by school systems in the Washington area this year.
In Prince George's County, Supt. Edward J. Feeney sent out a staff memorandum just last week urging teachers to de-emphasize mimeographed "ditto sheets" in favor of written composition.
"Concern has been expressed that ditto sheets not be used excessively, especially if students are required only to fill in blanks, match items or complete information. Students must be given opportunities to write sentences, paragraphs and composition in all subject areas," the memorandum said.
Alexandria's school board adopted a policy effective this fall of requiring regular written composition beginning in the early grades of elementary school. The board directed that the policy continue up through high school with a requirement that at the upper levels "at least one written paper each grading period shall be rewritten until it is the proper form."
Drops in scores on the verbal sections of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests plus concerns voiced by college faculty that many freshmen are inadequately trained in writing skills prompted the board's action, said chairman Carlyle C. Ring Jr.
"Writing is the skill that calls most fully on all the intellectual capabilities," said Ring."Critical writing calls on good grammar and spelling. It also demands mastery of material and the ability to organize it effectively. It's a reinforcement of the whole educational experience."
In Montgomery County, the Board of Education has directed that 1977-78 be a year of emphasis on writing and reading skills. The Arlington schools, beginning this year, are requiring one piece of written composition per week from each student in the fourth grade on up.
Samples are being collected and examined by the school system's central office. "We've got all kinds of papers," says Fred Carpenter, who runs the Arlington writing program. "We've got some terrible ones, we've got a lot in the middle and we've got some good ones."
Fairfax County's error-free writing program was ordered last spring by Supt. Davis who announced he was distressed by the quality of writing being done by county students and he wanted some improvements.
The sort of things he wanted improved were sentences such as these:
"The middle linebacker on a high school varsity football team could be the most punishing experience anyone could have."
"The loss of hours, such as trips into different time zones, results in a tired and run-down person."
The superintendent said he, himself, would be reviewing samples of students' writing and earlier this month he spent a morning at Hayfield going over compositions that students had written.
He reviewed, Davis said, papers from both good and bad students and decided that "overall, I am pleased with the first effort in the program. I thought the writing was well done, organized and interesting."
Throughout the summer, curriculum specialist Blaisdell and English language staffers worked on a curriculum guide for teaching of writing that was reading by the time schools opened in the fall.
Hayfield's department head Perrin described it as "having no gobbled-gook . . . no hoop-de-la."
Instead it stresses that "good writing is clear thinking" and it urges teachers to have students work at organizing and developing ideas, using complete and well written sentences, choosing precise and effective words, using correct capitalization, punctuation and spelling, creating an effective overall impression and picking a proper manuscript form.
About the most effect way to do that, says curriculum specialist Blaisdell, is through individual counseling.
"Until now teachers did not have the time or did not make the time to do that," she said.
"It's a lot more work, and I don't like that, but I'm glad we're doing this," said English teacher Forman. "I was teaching during the late 1960s and early 1970s when the teachers were being bullied around by the students and the parents."
"It's helped me a lot," said a Hayfield senior, Doug Nork. "I used to write run-on sentences before. This has helped me 100 per cent.
Still another senior, Emily Allara, said this is the first year she's learned anything about grammar and sentence structure. "I'm a senior, but if I had another year I wouldn't mind taking it again."
But for some students, including the superintendent's son, John, an eighth grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School, the demand for an error-free composition has been, at times, burdensome.
After his fifth attempt at rewriting, the youth informed his father, Davis reported, that "he certainly hoped I'd get over this."