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Writing Still Needs Work, Report Finds

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Although most students grasp the fundamentals of narrative and informative writing, a federal report released last week says, many have trouble producing effective pieces. And even the best students find it hard to marshal the arguments and evidence needed to write persuasively.

The generally lackluster performance of students on the 1992 "Writing Report Card'' of the National Assessment of Educational Progress may come as a disappointment to schools that have placed renewed emphasis on writing in the past five years.

The assessment asked a nationally representative sample of 30,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12 to complete a variety of tasks requiring persuasive, informative, and narrative writing.

One informative-writing task, for example, asked 4th graders to describe a favorite object and explain why they valued it. For persuasive writing, some 12th graders were asked to write about whether high school students should be required to perform community service to graduate.

Students completed either two 25-minute tasks or one 50-minute task.

Each task was scored at one of six levels, ranging from work that was only minimally responsive to the task to papers that were rated "extensively elaborated.''

For example, brief, vague, or somewhat confusing responses were rated at the third level, "minimally developed.'' At the top level, the papers deemed extensively elaborated showed a high degree of control over the elements of writing and were better organized, more clearly written, and less flawed than others.

No more than 3 percent of students at any grade level were able to write an "elaborated'' or better response--the fifth or sixth level--on a persuasive-writing task. At most, a quarter of the students on any task wrote at the fourth level--"developed''--or better.

Although students generally made their opinions understood and presented one or two brief reasons in support of them, few could develop their responses further.

"The report, in my judgment, is a mixed bag,'' said Michael J. Guerra, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. He noted that few 12th graders produced sophisticated or powerful pieces.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said he was particularly troubled by the large gap in scores between the top and bottom thirds of schools on the assessment.

For example, 12th graders in the bottom third of schools scored worse than 8th graders in the top third of schools. The average writing ability of students in the bottom-performing schools was four years or more behind that of students in the top-performing schools at grades 8 and 12.

"This is why we want to target our Title I funding more rigorously to those poor schools that really do need additional resources, additional impetus, to lift them up,'' Mr. Riley said, referring to the Clinton Administration's proposed changes in the federal compensatory-education program. "Every year, colleges and businesses spend billions of dollars on remedial-reading courses. It's time to fix the problem.''

Resources, Practices Vary

The Secretary delivered his remarks at Harriet Tubman Elementary School here. The school, which serves a mostly low-income, minority population, has made great strides in writing instruction.

In one 4th-grade class at the school last week, an "author's chair'' sat prominently in the middle of the room. And students read aloud from writing journals and "published'' pieces they had produced on a computer.

The NAEP study, which also surveyed students and educators at participating schools, found that more than half the variation in writing proficiency between the best- and worst-performing schools could be explained by differing instructional resources and practices.

Officials at top-performing schools typically reported that computers were available in separate computer laboratories, and were less likely to be used for spelling, punctuation, or grammar exercises. Teachers in those schools were more likely to give assignments of three or more pages in length and used longer essays to assess student progress.

Similarly, students in top-performing schools reported more frequent essay assignments requiring analysis and interpretation. They also were more likely to report being asked to plan their writing, to write more than one draft, and to have their writing graded as much for the quality and creativity of ideas as for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

'Need To Do More'

The survey also illustrates the increased effort devoted to writing instruction in many schools.

Between 1988 and 1992, the survey of teachers found, the proportion of 8th graders receiving at least an hour of writing instruction a week increased from 70 percent to 85 percent.

The 1992 data also show a trend toward new reforms in writing instruction, such as process-oriented activities and integrated reading, writing, and language tasks.

"This is a start in the right direction,'' said Mr. Riley, "but we clearly need to do more.'' Writing needs to be an integral part of every academic subject, he urged, and more time should be devoted to teaching children this basic skill.

Principals reported treating writing as an instructional priority. But 8th-grade teachers said the majority of students spend two hours or less a week on developing writing proficiency--no more than an hour of which occurs in school. That compares with five or more hours a week spent on math skills.

In addition, 52 percent of 8th graders and 37 percent of 12th graders reported never or hardly ever being given a writing assignment of three or more pages.

As in previous assessments, a student's home environment was closely related to writing performance. In general, the higher the educational achievement of the parent, the greater the student's writing ability. Also, the more reading materials in the home and the more discussion of schoolwork with someone at home, the better the student's writing.

Students who watch six or more hours of television daily or read five or fewer pages per day for schoolwork consistently demonstrated lower average writing achievement than those who watch only an hour or two of television or read more than 11 pages a day.

Students in disadvantaged urban communities did not write as well as students in well-to-do urban communities. On average, white and Asian-Pacific Islander students outscored blacks and Hispanics, while girls wrote better than boys and private school students outscored those in public schools.

Information on ordering the "NAEP 1992 Writing Report Card'' can be obtained by calling (800) 424-1616 or (202) 219-1651.

State-by-State Reporting of NAEP Discouraged

The National Assessment of Educational Progress should not be used to compare and rank states, a new study suggests.

The report by the nonprofit Educational Research Service found that 89 percent of the variation in state average test scores on the 1992 math assessment could be explained by a combination of four factors beyond the control of schools.

The factors are: number of parents living at home, parents' level of education, community type, and state poverty rate.

"Rather than accurately measuring differences in the quality or proficiency of the states' educational programs,'' cautioned the researchers, Glen E. Robinson and David P. Brandon, "the NAEP Trial State Assessment test scores appear to more accurately reflect differences in the difficulty of the educational tasks confronting the various states.''

The analysis also found some nondemographic factors that may substantially influence average state test scores. These include wide variations among states in the percentage of schools initially selected for the assessment that agree to participate.

Rankings Controversial

When the "nation's report card'' was instituted in the 1960's to measure student performance in key academic subjects, it was designed to prevent comparisons of states. But in 1988, Congress expanded NAEP to permit state-by-state comparisons of student achievement.

The comparisons have remained controversial. Critics say it is unfair to compare the achievement of states with large numbers of poor and minority students with that of states that have relatively homogeneous and affluent populations.

Earlier this year, federal officials considered adjusting scores on NAEP to reflect differences among states in school resources and in the demographic characteristics of their enrollments. But the idea was rejected following complaints that it would fail to hold all students to high standards. (See Education Week, March 9, 1994.)

The new report, "NAEP Test Scores: Should They Be Used To Compare and Rank State Educational Quality?,'' was based on the results of the 1992 assessment, which measured the math achievement of 4th and 8th graders and the reading achievement of 4th graders in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and two territories. State participation in the program is optional.

Copies of the study are available for $12 each, plus postage and handling, from the E.R.S., 2000 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22201.

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