Students' Best Writing Needs Work, Study Shows

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The best writing that students produce as part of their classroom work is still not very good. That's the conclusion of the first large-scale study of writing portfolios conducted on a national basis.

The portfolios were developed as part of the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally financed program that provides one of the primary barometers of student achievement in the United States.

A nationally representative sample of more than 3,000 4th and 8th graders who participated in the main 1992 NAEP writing assessment also submitted portfolios. The results were released here last week.

The students included three pieces of their writing from English or language-arts classes that represented their best work. The students were asked to give preference to pieces developed using such writing-process strategies as consulting with others and revising successive drafts.

They also were asked to select work that represented different kinds of writing--narrative, informative, and persuasive. So few examples of persuasive writing were submitted, however, that they were not analyzed in depth.

The samples were scored on a scale of 1 through 6, with scores of 1-2 representing undeveloped writing; 3-4, the medium range; and 5-6, the most developed prose.

'The Best Is Mediocre'

At the 4th-grade level, most 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 two categories.

"The moral of the story is that the writing is not very good in the nation," said Gary W. Phillips, the associate commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP. "Even the best is mediocre."

'Sustained Writing'

Students who used a larger number of process-writing strategies, however, wrote better. Students who spent more time writing, in school and out, also tended to perform better. Also, students who were asked to write papers of medium to long lengths (more than one page), at least once or twice a month, outperformed others.

"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 study shows that writing-portfolio assessments can be conducted on a large scale. But it may disappoint people who believed that if students were asked to write in ways closer to what they do on a day-to-day basis they would perform better than on other tests. Results from the main 1992 writing assessment, released last June, also revealed lackluster performance. (See Education Week, June 15, 1994.)

But the new study found little relationship between how students did on the portfolio writing and their scores on the regular NAEP writing assessment, in which students have 25 to 50 minutes to write in response to a prompt.

Mr. Phillips said both assessments are valid but may measure different aspects of writing skill and knowledge. "A testing program in a school district or a state has to decide what it wants to measure of writing," he said.

Oral Fluency Studied

The writing-portfolio study was one of four research studies embedded in the 1992 national assessment that attempted to give a fuller picture of students' work.

As part of the Integrated Reading Performance Record, 4th graders were asked to read aloud and talk about what they had read. They were also asked about their reading activities. The two studies represent NAEP's first attempt to measure oral reading on a large scale for fluency, accuracy, and speed.

In reading aloud a portion of one narrative text that they had read silently twice before, 55 percent of 4th graders were found to be fluent. Only 13 percent consistently read with appropriate phrasing and some expressiveness.

The studies found that as students' fluency increases, their average reading proficiency also increases, suggesting that fluency is related to comprehension. An overwhelming majority of 4th graders reported reading storybooks (97 percent) and magazines (90 percent); however, fewer reported reading information books (77 percent). Reading diverse materials appeared to be related to better scores on the main NAEP reading assessment.

The fourth study focused on some of the more innovative aspects of the 1992 reading assessment. Initial results from the assessment were released in fall 1993. The framework underlying the reading assessment was overhauled substantially to reflect reading as a more dynamic, interactive, constructive process.

At all three grade levels studied--4, 8, and 12--students' average performance was highest on multiple-choice questions (63 percent to 68 percent correct), somewhat lower on questions that required a short, constructed answer (51 percent to 61 percent acceptable), and lowest on questions that required an extended response (25 percent to 38 percent essential or better).

The reason for the differences, Mr. Phillips speculated, is that the longer, open-ended questions require students to process more information and probe for deeper understanding.

"What students know is, in part, related to how you try to find out what students know," he said.

Vol. 14, Issue 20

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