More Students Master ‘Basics’ on Writing NAEP

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 03, 2008 5 min read

At a time when many teenagers are consumed by such activities as text-messaging, blogging, and social networking, more middle and high school students than in the past have mastered the formal “basic” writing skills needed to express ideas or share information, national assessment results released last week show.

But just small proportions—33 percent of 8th graders and 24 percent of 12th graders—show proficiency in the subject, meaning they usually use proper spelling and grammar and the more sophisticated skills they need to write a school essay or explain complex information.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress in writing shows significant progress at both grade levels, and for most student subgroups, since the test was last given in 2002, and in the nine years since it was first administered. In both grades, more students displayed at least basic skills, and more were deemed “proficient” at writing than in 2002.

“Some [people] have worried that technology would debase the quality of writing. Others have shrugged and implied that writing would naturally and inevitably become less important over time anyway,” said Amanda Avallone, a Colorado middle school English teacher and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. “Based on the results of the 2007 NAEP assessment in writing, I am happy to report, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that the death of writing has been greatly exaggerated.”

Lower Achievers Gain

Overall, 8th graders scored an average 156 on a 300-point scale, gaining 3 points since 2002, and double that since 1998. High school seniors gained 5 points since 2002, scoring an average of 153. The lowest-performing students—who, on average, made huge leaps—progressed the most over the past five years. The bottom 10 percent of 12th graders, for example, scored 108 points, on average, an 11-point increase.

“These overall results are encouraging, not just because writing skills are improving, but also because that improvement was most pronounced at the lower-achievement range,” Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the governing board, said in a statement.

Achievement Levels


*Significantly different from 2007 SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Some observers, however, were not encouraged.

“Today’s test results offer a sobering look at student achievement in writing,” said former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, the chairman of ED in ’08, a campaign to promote education policies in the presidential election season. “If we continue to fail our students,” he said in a statement, “Americans will increasingly get beat for the best jobs, negatively impacting the nation’s economy.”

The gap between African-American students and their white peers is still vast—23 points for 8th and 12th graders, though it narrowed slightly in the former grade. White 8th graders averaged 164 points, while black students scored an average of 141. On the high school test, white students had an average score of 159.

Hispanics still trailed their white counterparts, by 20 points or more, with an average of 142 points for 8th graders and 139 for the older students.

Boys continued to fall short of the performance of girls in writing, by 20 points among 8th graders and 18 points among 12th graders, with an average of 146 and 144 points, respectively.

The gender gap in writing is far wider than in other subjects. Some 40 percent of 8th grade girls were proficient on the test, more than double the proportion of boys who showed the same level of skill. Girls have historically outperformed boys in reading, and boys have done better than girls in math and science, although those gaps have narrowed in recent years.

“Based on my classroom experiences, the gap between boys and girls, especially at grade 8—the level I teach—troubles and mystifies me,” Ms.Avallone said. “Nothing in my experience tells me that boys cannot write, … but I do suspect that the gender gap is in part the result of lower expectations for boys in the area of literacy, writing in particular. These days, I seldom if ever hear the message that math and science do not matter for girls.”

Switch to Computers

Nationally representative samples of some 165,000 public and private school students took the test in 2007, including 8th grade groups from each state and 10 urban districts. Each student was asked to complete two of 17 potential questions intended to measure skills in narrative, informative, and persuasive writing.

The proportion of students demonstrating skillful, or proficient, writing has not changed since 2002, and improved only slightly in the past decade. A third of the 8th graders tested nationally reached the proficient level, meaning they had clearly organized essays, and used details, varied their sentence structures, and made good word choices. Nearly one-fourth of 12th graders showed proficiency.

Multiple Gaps

Big gaps exist on the national writing assessment at both grade levels between black and white students, Hispanic and white students, and boys and girls. The writing test has the biggest gender gap of all in the NAEP portfolio.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Forty-five states and the Department of Defense schools participated in the 8th grade state NAEP in writing. Of the 38 jurisdictions that took part in the 2002 assessment, 20 showed improvement, while the rest remained about the same, except North Carolina, which showed a slight decline.

Eighth graders in 10 urban districts also took the test last year, four of which—Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles—have comparable scores from 2002. Among those districts, all but Houston saw improvement. Atlanta’s middle school students, for example, scored an average 145 in 2007, compared with 130 in 2002.

The test was not given at the 4th grade level last year, as it had been in previous administrations, because of the cost of the program. The next test, scheduled for 2011, will be based on a different framework, making it impossible to compare results with those of previous exams.

In addition, last year’s test may be the last time that middle and high school students actually write—with paper and pencil—on the national writing assessment. The governing board has approved giving the test on computers beginning in 2011.

Those changes could mean more disappointing results on the next assessment as teachers and students adjust to the demands of the new framework and format, according to Kathleen Yancey, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, based in Urbana, Ill. The new test for 12th graders will not give students as detailed instructions for completing a writing task. It could require, for example, that test-takers decide for themselves which rhetorical strategies—such as writing a letter, providing an extended example, or comparing and contrasting—would provide the best answer.

While the improvements in the scores are encouraging, Ms. Yancey said, teachers need to spend more time developing students’ writing skills.

“Writing doesn’t get the attention that reading and math do, and most of the research says that too much of the attention on writing is spent simply assisting students to pass the test,” said Ms. Yancey, a professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “But writing works for 6-year-olds or 60-year-olds … as a means of learning, as a means of engagement in school, and as a means of dialogue with the community.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as More Students Master ‘Basics’ on Writing NAEP


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