Too tough

To teach prospective graduates to write a research paper and motivate senior slackers, many schools are requiring senior projects. Parents and students at Cedarcrest High in Duvall, Washington hated the rigor, a Wall Street Journal story says.

Local parents had been complaining about the projects ever since Cedarcrest made them a graduation requirement in 1993. Some objected to the months of after-school work involved. Others were incensed by grading that sometimes seemed arbitrary and stringent. One year parents wore black armbands to graduation after three seniors were barred from the ceremonies for plagiarizing parts of their papers.

The senior project included an eight-page paper, an oral presentation and the creation of a related “product” . . .

The research paper — excellent preparation for college work — was a shock to students who’d spent their school years writing short reflections and journal entries.

Even three-page papers have become a rarity in English classes and 75% of all seniors say they get no writing assignments at all in history or social studies, according to a 2003 national commission on student writing.

. . . Employers and college professors overwhelmingly rated high-school graduates as “fair” or “poor” in basic math and clear writing in a 2002 study by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan opinion research group.

Senior projects took off in the late ’80s, the Journal reports. The goal was to develop skills “needed in the workplace or college, such as identifying problems, working out solutions and communicating effectively.” Pennsylvania, Washington and North Carolina require senior projects, though the rigor level varies greatly from school to school.

Cedarcrest, which had an unusually tough grading policy, eased up in response to angry parents. An ‘F’ on one part of the project no longer guarantees a failing grade. And the paper is much shorter.

After the minimum length for papers was slashed to three pages, from eight, meaty papers about subjects like campaign-finance reform and corporate monopolies gave way to brief essays, such as the history of Barbie dolls and the significance of proms. (Concerned that they might have made the paper too easy, school administrators boosted the minimum length up to four pages for the current school year.) With less to lose by doing badly, students began to take the project less seriously: 43% of the graduating class of 2004 received Fs on their papers, up from 9% for the class of 2003, the year before the changes.

When my daughter was in third grade, she wrote a research paper on the Monarch butterfly that ran about five pages, if memory serves. Why does Cedarcrest wait till senior year to teach students to write a research paper? Perhaps more rigor early on would make the senior project less daunting.

About Joanne


  1. An eight-page research paper is too hard for a high school senior? I’m sorry, but that’s simply ridiculous. Actually, I’m not sorry. By the time a student is a senior in high school, a three-page research paper should be a week-long affair.

    The thing to which I would object is the creation of a related product. Creating things such as gold rings and hand-made guitars probably eats up way more time than any length research paper. Is the education gained through these related products worth the time and monetary investment on the part of the students? In addition to the time investment, these projects seem to require a fairly large monetary investment, for a teenager at least.

    The other shocking thing is the parental show of support for three students who plagarized part of their papers. Is it any wonder why students display so few values these days?

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    An 8-page paper, oh the poor overworked dears, thank goodness they wait untio senior year to torture these unfortunates so. This is a perfect example of why so many kids who breezed through “good” high schools are aghast, and flounder badly for at least a year, when they discover how much more work is expected of them in any devent college.

    And yes, the kind of parents described in this story are a big part of the problem. If only they could be brought to understand how much damage their stupidity does to their kids. But of course when the kids struggle in college, it will be all the professors’ fault.

  3. Yep, this is why my college students can’t write — they haven’t been taught. And why they can’t spell. And why they don’t have the slightest idea how to do library research.

    We have to teach ALL of those skills now on the college level (not that they weren’t always REINFORCED here).

  4. All THROUGH school, as soon as we were old enough to write coherently, students in my school were required to do research papers. I know I did one or two a year – they weren’t long (I remember in 5th grade doing about a five or six page paper on the cougar) but they did teach us stuff – how to do research, how to find useful information, how to write. Teachers were very careful to show us what was plagiarism and what was not.

    I actually liked doing the research papers. But then, I was a weird kid.

    In high school, in my Natural History class, we were required to do a research project that took several months. Conduct an experiment or study and write it up. It was valuable preparation.

    I wish all kids got that preparation – right now, I’m dealing with college juniors and seniors who complain when I tell them they cannot use Microsoft Encarta as their sole sources (or as a source AT ALL) for a scientific research paper.

    I’d also like to see, now that the ‘Net is an inevitable part of students’ lives, some lessons on how to discern between information that is likely to be trustworthy (e.g., information from the CDC or USDA websites) and information that is not (e.g., information from websites selling “nutritional supplements” that base their claims on testimonials only). I teach what I can about choosing sources wisely, but I really think it needs to be addressed at an earlier age.

    And – black armbands because their students were barred from graduation because they plagiarized? Good grief. If I had plagiarized and been caught, I would have been more afraid of the penalty leveled by my parents than the one leveled by the school….But then, I guess the parents only care about the surface success of their kids. Maybe they’ll be the next crop of Worldcom-esque CEOs.

  5. Steve LaBonne says:

    What I hope is that these ambitious, amoral yuppie parents will inadvertantly promote social mobility, by raising their kids to be all hat and no cattle, predestining them to fail in the real world. Unfortunately even the real world seems increasingly to value paper credentials over substance. In which case it’s all of us in America who will eventually suffer, from the resulting economic decline.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Scan the papers in, do a word count, do a structual assessment, match against other papers for plagerism quotient, assign a grade based on all the above, then flag any papers that seem interesting enough to actually read.
    Get a program to do all of that, and teachers will start assigning reports again.

  7. When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher started us on a systematic 12-step writing program. We literally started with “Write a complete sentence” and worked our way up to a paragraph and finally to the traditional 5-paragraph essay form.

    By my sophomore year in high school we were writing 5-paragraph essays in-class on a regular basis.

    My senior year, poor time planning once resulted in my having to complete *three* research papers in one weekend. I think the shortest one was 11 pages. The longest paper I ever turned in while I was in high school was probably 25 pages; I’d say the average take-home paper wound up falling in the 5-8 page range.

    Note that these were all regular class assignments, not “special projects”. It was just the way homework was. And I’m hardly a stone-age dinosaur; I graduated high school in 1989. (Well, maybe I’m bronze-age by now… but still.)

    The only way to learn to write is to write, on an ongoing basis, over an extended period of time, with increasing complexity. Failing to ground students in the basics and then tossing them into the deep end is neither fair nor effective. I can understand parents being angry, but the proper focus of their anger should be on the way the schools have failed to teach the necessary foundation for solid writing in years prior to the senior one.

  8. When I was in sixth grade I wrote a 12 page report on carnivorous plants, with footnotes and illustrations.