Reading & Literacy

Low Proficiency Seen on Computer-Based NAEP Writing Exam

By Nora Fleming — September 18, 2012 4 min read
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to be completed on computers. The report finds that those students required to use computers more often to write and edit assignments for school performed better on the test.

With the new National Assessment of Educational Progress in writing, students not only responded to questions and composed their essays on laptop computers, but also were evaluated on how frequently they used word-processing review tools like “spell check” and editing tools such as copying and cutting text. Some prompts also featured multimedia components.

According to the NAEP report, released last week, the switch from paper and pencil to a computer-based test is tied to recognition of the role technology plays in a 21st-century student’s life. In 2009, a hands-on and computerized science NAEP was administered, and all new NAEP exams are slated to be computerized, including, for example, a 2014 technology and engineering assessment administered entirely on computers.

“This is a very exciting time for us,” said Mary Crovo, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, on a conference call with reporters. "[Technology] is becoming more the norm than the exception in our nation’s schools and certainly the way students communicate in college and the workplace.”

New Framework

With the new format, which is evaluated on a revised NAEP writing framework, the latest results are not comparable to past exams, but future tests will use these results as a benchmark. The most recent paper-and-pencil tests were administered in 1998, 2002, and 2007.

Gauging Performance

Most U.S. 8th graders scored below the “proficient” bar in 2011 on the NAEP writing test in 2011, which for the first time was administered by computer.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

On the new writing NAEP, given last year, the nationally representative sample of students—24,100 8th graders and 28,100 12th graders—were asked to respond to two 30-minute writing prompts that asked them to persuade, explain, or convey experiences. Results show the percentages of students in each grade reaching the “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” levels, which reflect how well they could communicate purposeful messages to specific audiences, such as a college-admissions committee.

At the 8th grade level, for example, one exercise called “Lost Island” asked students to imagine they had arrived on a remote island and listen to an audio file that included nature sounds and lines of a journal read aloud. Students then were required to write personal stories that chronicled an experience they would have had on the island, had they been there.

To reach “advanced” on the exam, students told well-organized stories with strong details, precise word choices, and varied sentences, according to the NAEP report. Students at the “basic” level would use some detail in their stories, but organization was “loose,” sentence structure unvaried, and word choice limited.

Teachers of students who took the new exam were surveyed on how frequently they assign schoolwork to be completed on computers. The report finds that those students required to use computers more often to write and edit assignments for school performed better on the test.

Overall, only 27 percent of students in both grades tested scored at or above the proficient level in 2011. The data also reveal some persistent achievement gaps. For instance, at the 12th grade level, 9 percent of black students and 12 percent of Latinos scored proficient or above, compared with 34 percent of white students. Also, females outperformed males at both grade levels. In 8th grade, 37 percent of girls scored proficient or above, compared with 18 percent of boys.

Such performance differences for various populations were similar to those seen with the paper-and-pencil tests, according to NAEP data.

David P. Driscoll, the chairman of the NAEP governing board, saw reason for concern in the new data.

“We need to focus on supporting students beyond the ‘basic’ levels so that they have a solid grasp of effective writing skills,” he said in a press release.

Access to Technology

Beverly Ann Chin, a professor in the English department at the University of Montana, in Missoula, said the report provides insights on how students use technology to write. She also highlighted the stronger outcomes for students who used computers regularly in class.

“These findings support the importance of integrating computers into writing instruction,” she said in a statement. “When teachers encourage students to use word-processing features on a regular basis, students learn how computers can facilitate their writing processes and improve their final product.”

Ms. Chin raised concerns about access to technology, noting survey data from the NAEP report suggesting that students from low-income families were less likely to be asked by their teachers to use computers to draft and review their writing.

“Students who are skilled in using technology tools in writing will be more successful in school, the workplace, and society,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Low Proficiency Seen on Computer-Based NAEP Writing Exam


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