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NAEP Gains Reported in 8th Graders' Writing Skills

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New Orleans

At least at the 8th-grade level, American students' writing skills are improving, researchers said in an unofficial preview of upcoming reports based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The previews were presented during an April 7 session held here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. They highlighted findings from four upcoming reports that draw on data from the "nation's report card.''

NAEP, a Congressionally mandated effort that tests as many as 20,000 students in key academic subjects each year, is often used as a barometer of student achievement.

The reports will not be released until June, but officials of the Educational Testing Service, which conducted the studies for the federal government, shared a few of the findings with research colleagues.

American students have long turned in lackluster writing performances on NAEP tests, which gauge student proficiency at writing narrative, persuasive, and informative essays. In all three of those genres, student proficiency has remained stagnant from 1984 to 1990.

An upcoming NAEP report on trends in student achievement, however, shows that 8th graders' writing skills improved "significantly'' from 1990 to 1992, said Jules Goodison, the deputy director of the Center for Assessment of Progress in Education at the E.T.S, a Princeton, N.J.-based testing firm.

Students' skills appear to be strongest in informative writing. Jay Campbell, a program associate at the center, said that in one particular task on the 1990 "Writing Report Card,'' as many as 71 percent of students produced essays judged to be "developed or better,'' earning a score of 4 or higher on a 6-point scale.

Time on Writing

Students still appeared to have significant difficulties, however, with other writing styles. In persuasive writing, the proportion of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 whose writings were judged "developed or better'' ranged from 7 percent to 25 percent.

Mr. Campbell also said that one-quarter of the 4th graders tested and one-half of the 12th graders produced narrative essays that scored at that level.

Officials at two-thirds of the schools attended by 8th graders in the study indicated that writing was a priority. Yet, researchers found, more than half of those students were being taught by teachers who spent 60 minutes or less a week on writing instruction.

Moreover, the study found, the more students write in school, the better they performed on the NAEP tests.

The "Writing Report Card'' also suggests that process writing--a form of instruction that encourages students to view writing as a process with steps that include pre-writing, revising, and editing--is firmly entrenched. Seventy percent of the teachers surveyed said they emphasized such methods, while only 35 percent said they focused on spelling and grammar.

Just six years ago, when the last writing assessment was conducted, nearly one-half of the teachers surveyed listed spelling and grammar as a curricular emphasis.

"And there's a clear relationship between the types of activities associated with process writing and students' proficiency,'' Mr. Campbell said.

It was unclear, however, whether that link was positive or negative. Because the writing report has not been officially released yet, E.T.S. officials last week declined to elaborate on their comments.

The NAEP studies also found that:

  • In reading, students made only "modest gains'' between the 1970's and 1992.
  • The mathematics proficiency of 13- and 17-year-olds, which dropped during the 1970's, has now caught up to previous levels.
  • Gaps remain between the achievement of black students and that of white students in reading, writing, mathematics, and science.
  • Except at age 9, male students tend to do better in mathematics and science than their female peers do. Female students continue to excel on the reading and writing assessments.
  • More than one-third of 8th graders said they use calculators on a regular basis.

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