At Greenwich Country Day (search), a prestigious Connecticut private school, computers have all but replaced pencil and paper. Typing instruction starts in second grade, and laptops are mandatory by seventh. Essays are typed, and often class notes are, too.
"As an adult in today's work world, you don't write anything," said Carol Maoz, head of the upper school (grades 7-9), adding she couldn't think of an occasion students would write out a longhand essay. "You type everything. There really is no need for proper handwriting."
Maybe not -- indeed, even notes get passed in class via text message these days.
But next spring, many of Country Day's alumni, along with millions of other high school juniors, will have to write a very important, 25-minute longhand essay -- as part of the new SAT (search). Nearly as many will write a new optional essay on the ACT (search).
The new tests are causing general anxiety for the high school class of 2006, guidance counselors report. And some students who think they'll write a good essay are worried scorers won't be able to decipher it, raising the question of whether penmanship should be getting more attention in the classroom.
"People like myself, who don't have good handwriting, are wondering if some anonymous person is going to think I spelled stuff wrong and not understand what I'm trying to say," said Lucas Rohm, a 16-year-old Country Day alum who is now a rising junior at Greenwich High School. "I definitely feel handwriting is something I need. Country Day just kind of brushed that out."
The school says it still emphasizes handwriting in the early grades; this year, younger students were assigned to write longhand notes to classmates over the summer. Nationally, with a renewed emphasis on basic skills, handwriting is probably getting more attention than a decade ago, said University of Maryland education expert Steve Graham.
But that's still far less than it did during the pre-computer era. Teachers may view penmanship as less important, or simply have more material to cover.
"When there really were only three 'Rs,' they could spend more time on it," said Richard Northup, a vice president at Zaner-Bloser (search), an educational publisher that revised its handwriting teaching products several years ago. Teachers told the company they needed to get through the topic more quickly.
Still, many educators aren't ready to declare penmanship and the longhand essays lost arts. The National Handwriting Contest (search), sponsored by Zaner-Bloser, saw entries jump 30 percent to 130,000 last year.
Northup insists that, while educators may be spending less time on handwriting, they are teaching it more efficiently, and have come to appreciate the important role of letter formation in helping students read. He also welcomes the new SAT essay.
Graham said he's found 90 percent of elementary teachers he surveyed were teaching handwriting, though about three-quarters didn't think they were adequately prepared and very little is taught after third grade.
"Handwriting's not going to disappear for a good while, unless something radical changes in schools," he said.
One factor suggesting that's true is a developing appreciation of the limits of classroom computers. Indeed, many colleges, law and business schools that wired their lecture halls for students discovered the technology was more likely to be used for surfing the Web and e-mailing.
That's also what happened at Country Day, said Rohm, the student with sloppy handwriting.
"Half the kids are looking at Web sites, playing games in class," he said. "Computers are great, but there are so many hours spent working on computers that haven't helped me."
Administrators of the SAT and ACT insist students won't be penalized for poor penmanship, and say their readers -- all experienced teachers -- have lots of practice deciphering the most "chickenesque" scratches.
Students with poor penmanship also are unlikely to pay too heavy a price for bad scrawl in college. While some professors maintain the written in-class essay exam, students do most of their formal work on computers. Professors are generally more interested in evaluating a revised, polished product than in how well a student composes on the fly.
"As far as we can tell, our kids have not been hurt in any way," Maoz said of Country Day's technology emphasis. "We talk a lot about technology and some of the downsides, but honestly, (penmanship) just is not one of them."
As for the new SAT, she said: "the curriculum is not going to change just so kids can take this one test."