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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

2 Rs Left in High School

Out of choice or fatigue, many teachers have abandoned the term paper, leaving a hole in college-bound students' education.

May 19, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

High school junior Dominique Houston is a straight-A student enrolled in honors and Advanced Placement classes at Northview High School in Covina. She is a candidate for class valedictorian and hopes to double-major in marine biology and political science in college, preferably UCLA or the University of San Diego.

But the 17-year-old said she has written only one research paper during her high school career. It was three pages long, examining the habits of beluga whales.

Houston frets over whether she will be able to handle assignments for long, footnoted research papers once she gets to college.

"Bibliographies? We don't really even know how to do those. I don't even know how I would write a 15-page paper. I don't even know how I would begin," she said.

Her experience appears to be increasingly common. Across the country, high school English and social studies teachers have cut back or simply abandoned the traditional term paper.

Although some students and critics contend that teachers are lazier than in the past, many educators say they can't grade piles of papers for overcrowded classes while trying to meet the increased demands of standardized testing, many of which involve multiple-choice questions. Other teachers believe that term papers are meaningless exercises, because the Internet has made plagiarism more common and difficult to spot. And many say long (10- to 15-page) research papers are pointless, because many students' basic writing skills are weak and are more likely to improve with shorter and more frequent assignments.

A report by the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, a panel of academics gathered by the College Board, found that 75% of high school seniors never receive writing assignments in history or social studies.

The study also found that a major research and writing project required in the senior year of high school "has become an educational curiosity, something rarely assigned." In addition, the report found that, by the first year of college, more than 50% of freshmen are unable to analyze or synthesize information or produce papers free of language errors.

Commission Chairman C. Peter Magrath blamed societal changes. "We don't write letters anymore, because we use telephone and e-mail and watch television. We communicate in all kinds of other ways," he said.

Teresa Humphreys, head counselor at Northview, said the school recognizes the problem and will start an intense writing plan next year, requiring papers in nearly every subject.

"We want them to get back to writing," Humphreys said. "We decided this will be the focus of our school."

All schools need to refocus that way, said Gary Orfield, a professor of education at Harvard University. During his public high school days, he wrote many research papers, including one on Shakespeare. Such assignments are rare today, he said, because "we're in such an idiotic period in education that we've simplified it into filling in this bubble."

"If we send students to college without being able to think, synthesize or write in a coherent way, students are going to be crippled, no matter what their test scores are," he said.

The result shows in the awful quality of many college term papers, said J. Martin Rochester, author of a book on failing education systems and a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"I read every paper line by line," he said of his students' research projects. "It's one of the most painful ordeals you can ever go through. Students today cannot write a complete sentence."

Eliana Seja, 18, a freshman at USC, said she rarely had to do research papers when she was an honors student at Chino High School. The longest assignment she remembers was three pages. During her senior year, the only writing assignment she completed was her personal essay required for college admittance, she said.

She struggled through her first college paper, six pages for her sociology class examining the role of families in the media.

"When I came here, I was so scared about writing papers, because I didn't have any experience," Seja said. "It was really a challenge. It was so hard for me. I had no idea about structure."

Dawn Damron, co-chairwoman of the English department at Chino High, said that students in almost all grades have to do some research, but that it is up to each teacher to decide the length and frequency of writing assignments. Most teachers concentrate on making sure students can "coherently write a five-paragraph essay," because that is the type of writing that students must complete on timed standardized tests, she said.

"I wouldn't say research papers have gone out the window," Damron said. But she said she thinks students "probably do write less because the focus of what they have to learn has changed. Standardized testing is a big deal. The scores are published in the paper. People make assumptions about a school based on one test."

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