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You don't have to be a good speller to be a good writer. That's the message from the Oregon Department of Education.

Tomorrow morning, Oregon students will start taking their standardized writing exams. And for the first time, those doing their essays online will get to use spell check.

From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Rob Manning reports.

(Soundbite of conversation)

ROB MANNING: For some students at East Portland's Parkrose High School, using spell check on the state's required writing exam makes a lot of sense. They say it's on word processing software; it's even on their cell phones.

Jerry Hunter is a junior. He says spell check is everywhere.

Mr. JERRY HUNTER: Nobody is a perfect speller, you know? People have gone through school. They haven't done so well in spelling and still turn out successful. It is a good luxury to have. It is a good tool to just keep with you. So I don't think kids should be denied of that, and I think it might even benefit us in the future.

MANNING: But some of Hunter's classmates worry that spell check is a crutch they don't want to rely on.

When junior Ashley Smith sits down for her test, she'd rather not have spell check, because she won't have it when the SAT or Advanced Placement exams come along.

Ms. ASHLEY SMITH: If we always constantly use spell check, then what about when we get in situations like that? When we don't have it, we're going to be completely confused and maybe even fail it, because it's one of the parts that they grade you on.

MANNING: Oregon will allow students starting in the seventh grade to use spell check to point out misspelled words, but it won't correct them for the student. It also won't catch grammar mistakes or tell students if they used the wrong spelling of there, for instance.

State education officials counter that another important test allows spell check, the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, often called the nation's report card.

State schools superintendent Susan Castillo says it's important to incorporate newer technology into assessments. She's hoping that spell check can help students focus on more abstract writing skills. She compares it to architects who use software to do their actual drafting.

Ms. SUSAN CASTILLO (Superintendent of Public Instruction, Oregon): Now, with the use of computers, that work that basic function work is done for them, and they are free to be creative and innovative.

Ms. NERISSA EDIZA (English Teacher, Parkrose High School): This is not to say that English teachers aren't still teaching spelling.

MANNING: Nerissa Ediza teaches English at Parkrose High School.

Ms. EDIZA: There's also students who struggle with things like dyslexia or are good writers but that one little thing gets in the way of them passing. And this is a high-stakes test. They have to pass it in order to graduate.

MANNING: But not every Oregon student will get to use spell check on their writing exams. That's because, despite the Portland area's reputation for technology firms, computer shortages in schools mean only about one-quarter of students are expected to take this year's writing test online.

Michelle Wood teaches English at David Douglas High, the state's largest high school. Her students won't have computers for the writing test.

Ms. MICHELLE WOOD (English Teacher, David Douglas High School): You can't compare a student that's taken a hand, you know, paper-pencil test to a student who's typed up a test and had any sort of technological advances like spell check.

MANNING: Oregon education officials contend that all students can use dictionaries and other spelling tools, but they plan to watch the results closely to see if there's a significant difference. Regardless, they say online testing is the direction the state and likely the nation is headed.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Manning in Portland.

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