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.”
At Roosevelt High School on Los Angeles’ Eastside, finding a teacher willing to assign a long paper would be like “finding a dinosaur,” said Aldo Parral, 32, who teaches social studies and Advanced Placement English.
When he was a student there, more than 15 years ago, he wrote a 12-page paper on the stock market crash of 1987. But in 10 years as a teacher at the school, Parral assigned no term papers because he thought journal entries and short essays provided enough writing experience.
This year, he decided to challenge students in his advanced classes with a four- to six-page research paper. He said most were receptive, because they knew such work would be expected in college. He added that Roosevelt’s English and social studies departments are pushing to include more research papers next year.
Although many teachers say they have given up on term papers because of the hundreds of Web sites selling ready-written versions to cheaters, Donna Garner, an English teacher who taught for 27 years in central Texas public schools, has fought back.
She created and posted on the Internet a step-by-step process for teachers who assign and grade term papers. It requires students to document and update their research progress continuously, making it nearly impossible to plagiarize by downloading a research paper the night before class.
According to Garner’s instructions, students must gather information from a variety of sources, including liberal and conservative magazines, newspapers and Web sites. They must type a series of informal outlines and rough drafts supporting each idea with labels and more background. They edit and re-edit.
Other teachers say plagiarism concerns are secondary to time constraints.
As a new teacher three years ago at Granger High School in West Valley City, Utah, Michelle Harper didn’t foresee the stress of classes of 30 to 35 students. In her first year on the job, she assigned her English students a 10-page research paper.
“Wow, it took me a long time to correct. Every waking moment I had a paper in my hand, so that if I got a second I could read it,” she said. “The next time around I decided that I shouldn’t have to give up everything ... for research papers. We tried it a little smaller: five pages.”
Now, they have been whittled down even more: “I don’t assign more than a typewritten page anymore.”
Most troublesome were her students’ struggles to construct complete sentences and paragraphs.
“How can I expect a paper, if they can’t make the first step?” Harper asked.
Some high school students and college professors, however, say the decline is simply a result of the unwillingness of a growing number of teachers to spend nights and weekends grading papers.
“Some wonderful teachers stay up until midnight grading,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former assistant U.S. secretary of education. “But many more are told by unions that the school day ends at 2:50, and that’s when they are done.”
Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Assn. teachers union, said the average teacher works 48 hours a week, even though their contracts often require far less time. The decline of the term paper can be traced to swelling class sizes, she said.
“If a teacher has 30 students in each class and five periods in a day, that’s 150 papers that have to be graded,” she said. “That’s a monumental amount of reading.”
Stephen Miller, 17, a senior at Santa Monica High School enrolled in honors and AP classes, says he has never written a long term paper, even though teachers there say students receive plenty of writing and research assignments.
Miller, who is active in band, tennis, religious studies and political and youth groups, said there is no time for lengthy writing projects, especially with all of the required testing.
“To be accepted into a university, you have to be a stellar student, athletic, musically inclined and involved in the community,” he said. “For students like me, if I was getting term and research papers, it would hinder my ability to perform well in other classes and continue all of the extracurricular activities I am involved in.”
But Miller, who will attend Duke University next year, said he is not nervous about parachuting into a college atmosphere where five-, 10- and 15-page papers are due every few weeks.
He said he likes a challenge. Writing a term paper, he said, will “be a new experience for me.”