Nearly 13,000 Oregon high school seniors failed the state writing test as juniors and won’t get a diploma unless they can demonstrate better writing skills this school year, state officials said Thursday.

Students in the class of 2013 are the first in state history to have to prove they have adequate writing skills, demonstrated in a polished essay or two, to graduate. They also must demonstrate acceptable reading skills, making them the second class to face that requirement.

Unlike with the state reading test, which students can take six times during their junior and senior years, the state writing test is given to students just once, in the winter or spring of junior year.

Students know their diploma now hinges on a passing score. But only 68 percent passed last school year, state officials revealed Thursday. Another 14 percent, or about 5,700, came close. And 18 percent, or about 7,100, wrote essays judged to be far from acceptable.

The 13,000 students who didn’t pass on their lone attempt will instead have to demonstrate adequate writing skills on two writing exercises graded by teachers at their school.

Educators are concerned about how they will provide all the needed writing instruction and find the time to document how the essays meet or fail to meet the state standards for high school writing, said Randy Schild, superintendent of Tillamook schools. His district hired a full-time writing coordinator this summer to help teachers improve writing instruction in the coming year, he said.

“Writing is not a skill you can change in a snap,” Schild said. “But if you want students to be really successful in the future, teach them to write well.”

In his district, about 39 percent of students failed the writing test as juniors. Tillamook schools must do better, he said.

State Board of Education members were briefed on the preliminary writing results Thursday as well as how the class of 2012 performed on the new graduation requirement of demonstrating adequate reading skills.

Many said they were pleasantly surprised that nearly all students in the class of 2012 came through during their senior year and demonstrated adequate reading skills to earn a diploma. Board members had feared thousands of students might be denied diplomas, but that did not happen.

When the reading requirement was set in 2008, Oregon schools chief Rob Saxton recalled, “There was a pretty good belief out in the field that we couldn’t get there. ...Folks believed it to be a very high bar... (But) people got there.”

About 6,000 students in the class of 2013 still need to demonstrate they can read well enough to deserve a diploma. Among them, about 5,000 still must demonstrate adequate writing skills, too.

Despite the challenges, board members said they and their predecessors did the right thing to require students to demonstrate adequate reading and writing skills before they graduate.

“School districts have just stepped up and done a remarkable job,” said board member Duncan Wyse.

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