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Lacking the Write Stuff

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The students were asked to give preference to pieces developed using process-writing strategies, such as consulting with classmates and revising successive drafts. They also were asked to select work that represented different kinds of writing--narrative, informative, and persuasive.

The samples were scored on a scale of 1 through 6, with scores of 1-2 representing undeveloped writing and 5-6 the most developed prose. Few examples of persuasive writing were submitted, so that category was not analyzed in depth.

At the 4th grade level, the majority of the narrative papers submitted (52 percent) were descriptions or lists of events that were brief or undeveloped; 46 percent were stories with some descriptive detail but little development. Only 1 percent were developed stories. (Because of rounding, the percentages for some categories do not total 100 percent.)

The following paper, as written by a 4th grader, is an example of a simple description of an event: "When I went to the zoo, the dinosaurs exhibit was on. They had diplodocus, and pterodactyls. They had like protozoa, it's like a plant. They had cavemen, and apes. They had sharks and jellyfish.''

By the 8th grade, students' work had improved. Only 23 percent of the narratives were undeveloped stories; 65 percent included some descriptive detail, and 12 percent were more developed stories.

Of 4th graders' informative writing, 73 percent was at a basic level, 27 percent in the medium range, and only 1 percent represented developed discussions. In contrast, the majority of 8th graders' papers (53 percent) presented a broad range of information and related it in a coherent way in at least one section of the piece. Still, only 4 percent of 8th graders' informative writing was rated in the top category.

"The moral of the story is that the writing is not very good in the nation,'' said Gary Phillips, associate commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP. "Even the best is mediocre.'' Results from the main 1992 writing assessment, released last June, also revealed lackluster performance.

Still, the portfolio project revealed that students who used a larger number of process-writing strategies wrote better. Students who spent more time writing, in school and out, also tended to outperform the others. And those who were asked to write papers of medium to long lengths (more than one page) at least once or twice a month also performed better.

"Sustained writing is essential to any good writing program,'' said Marilyn Whirry, a high school English teacher in California and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. "Students cannot learn to write well by jotting down a few sentences.''

The project demonstrated that portfolio assessments of students' writing can be conducted on a large scale. But those involved say such assessments may ultimately disappoint educators who believe their students would perform better on writing tests if they were evaluated on the kind of writing they do on a day-to-day basis in the classroom.

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