If ChatGPT Can Write Virtually Anything, What Should a National Writing Exam Test?

By Libby Stanford — November 17, 2023 6 min read
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For good or ill, people use ChatGPT now to write virtually any type of communication, from award acceptance speeches to business emails to book reports.

Now the rapid ascendance of artificial intelligence is raising fundamental questions about what future students should be taught about writing—and, by extension, how their writing skills should be measured.

The panel that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress voted at its quarterly meeting this week to postpone the next scheduled writing exam by two to three years so the board can have more time to develop the exam framework with a better sense of how the rapidly developing AI technology might shape writing instruction.

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Pending congressional approval of a waiver to test students on non-election years to avoid politicizing NAEP, that means the exam will be pushed back from 2030 to either 2032 or 2033.

The NAEP writing exam was last given in 2017, when students used tablets to complete it. The writing exam has previously tested students in grades 4, 8, and 12.

The decision by the National Assessment Governing Board on the writing exam was included in the board’s overall approval of a new NAEP schedule, which will expand 12th grade reading and math, 8th grade U.S. civics and history, and 8th grade science exams to include state-level results starting in 2028. (Currently, NAEP releases only national results for those exams.)

The board also used the meeting to approve a new science framework that lays out the content and skills to be tested on the NAEP science exam and further discuss the future of AI and NAEP.

The federally administered NAEP is the primary exam used to track U.S. students’ progress over time and compare performance state to state.

Educators and schools go from AI wariness to slow acceptance

While some educators were initially wary of AI and its potential impact on schooling,—New York City public schools, for example, even banned the tool briefly before reversing course—experts have made it clear that AI is here to stay, and students need to learn how to use the technology to be effective and successful workers.

But exactly how AI should be used in writing instruction remains unclear. The technology is rapidly changing, and so are opinions about its value. For NAGB, the governing body that makes decisions about NAEP assessments years in advance, that’s a difficult landscape to navigate.

“We heard clear guidance from the field that AI will have implications for the teaching and the assessment of writing,” Martin West, one of the panel’s members and a Massachusetts state board of education member, said in an interview. “We did not hear a consensus on exactly what those changes would look like. That’s understandable given the pace of change in the technology and what it’s capable of doing. So, this didn’t seem like the right time to undertake a framework revision that we would want to stand the test of time.”

AI also has the potential to change the way the public accesses and uses NAEP data. The National Center for Education Statistics, the division of the federal Education Department that administers NAEP and compiles and analyzes its results, is looking to partner with an AI chatbot service that will allow people to ask specific questions about data, Ebony Walton, an NCES statistician, said at the meeting.

For example, a person could type into a chatbot, “please show me the results relating absenteeism to performance in NAEP reading grade 4,” and it would provide that breakdown. The chatbot will only include information that has been released to the public, Walton said.

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New schedule means more information for states

The board also approved concrete changes to the NAEP schedule.

Starting in 2028, NAEP will begin state-level assessments of 12th grade students every four years in reading and math. Congress requires the administration of NAEP at the national and state levels in reading and math every two years for 4th and 8th graders and at the national level and every four years for 12th graders. NAEP is also administered on the state level and for a handful of urban districts for 4th and 8th grade students.

The change means a wider selection of 12th-grade students will take the NAEP reading and math tests to give an accurate representation of the demographics in participating states, as states won’t be required to participate.

Currently, states have limited tools to understand achievement among high school seniors who are just completing their K-12 career. The ACT, SAT, and AP exams, for example, don’t test a full sample of students. With the new schedule, which will start testing 12th graders on the state level every four years in 2028 or 2029, depending on the approval of the congressional waiver, states will have a more robust understanding of what students know as they exit the K-12 system.

“Yes, [the AP exam] gives a snapshot of what my kids can do, but that’s not the entire senior class of my high school,” said Patrick Kelly, one of the governing board’s members and a South Carolina teacher who teaches AP U.S. government and history courses. “As much as I wish my class was a direct reflection of the total student population at my high school, it’s not.”

But while the board members agreed state-level results will be beneficial, some also shared concerns about getting buy-in from states. Seniors in high school may not be as motivated to try on the exams and school districts are wary of adding another test to the already packed assessment schedule high school seniors face, according to feedback NAGB received from school district and state leaders.

NAEP has provided state-level results for 12th graders twice before—in 2009, when 11 states participated, and 2013, when 13 states participated. At their meeting Friday, the board members charged NAGB staff with finding ways to generate interest and support for the 12th-grade exam from state officials.

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New science framework focuses on sensemaking, not memorization

The board also approved an updated science framework. The new science framework aims to better reflect research-backed science instruction with an emphasis on “the three dimensions of science”: disciplinary concepts, such as physical science, life sciences, and earth and space sciences; science and engineering practices; and crosscutting concepts, or the concepts that are used across science disciplines and provide tools to better understand new phenomena.

Those generally reflect the Next Generation Science Standards, a shared set of science goals about 20 states have adopted.

NAEP has outlined specific crosscutting concepts or themes that students should learn, including patterns; cause and effect; scale, proportion, and quantity; systems and system models; conservation, flows, and cycles, otherwise known as tracking energy and matter; relationships between structure and function; and the conditions for stability and change in systems.

The new framework also adds engineering and technology concepts to better reflect modern science education. And it has a specific focus on sense-making—the process of having students build an understanding of concepts by applying them to real-world scenarios.

“It really is going to allow us to assess what can students do with information, not just what do students know,” Kelly said.


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