Reading & Literacy

NAEP Results Underscore Need To Up Writing Instruction

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — August 06, 2003 7 min read
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A few months after a national panel of experts and a survey of history teachers both lamented a lack of opportunities for students to develop and hone their writing skills, the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released here last month, seem to offer more evidence of the need to improve writing instruction in schools.

“The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2002,” is available from the National Center for Educational Statistics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Still, some experts were able to point to bright spots in the test results. “Not only has writing improved at both the 4th and 8th grades, but the proportion of students reaching the ‘basic’ achievement level is reasonably high at all three grades that NAEP tests,” said Marilyn Whirry, a member of the board that oversees policy for the national assessment. “Unfortunately, the proportion that can compose the organized, coherent prose required for writing at the ‘proficient’ level is still quite small.”

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Read the accompanying sample responses, “Sizing Up Excellence.”

But other educators wonder just how well the test, known as “the nation’s report card,” can gauge whether students are mastering necessary writing skills.

“I’m not convinced that this test ... by itself can give us a good profile of the state of writing education or the state of student writing competency in the nation,” said David M. Bloome, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, based in Urbana, Ill. “What it probably does is give us a profile of student ability to take a writing test.”

The NAEP test provides questions, or prompts, that ask students to write narrative, persuasive, and informative responses. Each student is given two questions—different test booklets are given across student samples to provide a variety of genres and questions to be tested—and allowed 25 minutes to respond to each. Test directions give students tips for planning and revising their writing.

While Mr. Bloome and others question the authenticity of the writing tasks on NAEP and other standardized writing tests, other experts say such assignments can mimic those encountered throughout life.

Artificial or Authentic?

“Some people complain that the situation is artificial, giving students only so many minutes to write,” said Ms. Whirry, a former high school English teacher. “But there are many situations where people face deadlines in finishing work assignments and writing reports. The ability to analyze a problem quickly and write what you think clearly and succinctly is important—not just on tests but in many professions and many lives.”

Ms. Whirry, who was the 2000 National Teacher of the Year, said she regularly used such timed assignments throughout her three decades in the classroom.

Some critics, however, maintain that the test questions and the standards for grading the responses as “excellent,” “sufficient,” or “uneven,” do not reflect the kind of rigorous writing requirements students need to prepare for higher education or their careers, according to Will Fitzhugh, the president of the Concord Review and the National Writing Board, which promote lengthy, scholarly research papers by high school students.

Mr. Fitzhugh said the written samples provided in the NAEP report reflect the current trend in writing assignments that ask students more about what they think and feel instead of requiring them to analyze information and draw informed conclusions.

“This is personal writing, creative writing, not academic writing,” he contended. “I’m prejudiced because I think it takes time to write, to do actual academic work, and spend time writing about it.”

He points to a sample response that was rated excellent by NAEP graders. The question was based on a scene in a 1950 novel in which books are banned, and the characters decide to memorize their favorite texts in order to save them for posterity. The 12th grade test-takers were asked to explain which book they would choose to memorize if they were in a similar situation.

One student wrote about Demian, by the German writer Herman Hesse.

“Although this novel is not necessarily a blatant American classic,” the student wrote, “it does have many powerful traits and deserves to be read by any highschooler. In the sense of literary analysis, the novel is an excellent example of Jungian psychology, and serves to chronicle a boy named Emil Sinclair’s individuation, or the process of finding out who he is.

“High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery,” the student continued, “where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life. Since Sinclair is going through much of what an average student might (troubles at school, falling in love) relating with and learning from Sinclair is an important aspect of the novel.”

The student went on to describe how the experience of the main character reflects how many high school students feel about growing up.

“I think this is a very weak answer,” Mr. Fitzhugh said of the piece, despite its earning the top rating by NAEP graders. “You ask them about a novel, and all they can do is talk about themselves.”

Ms. Whirry acknowledges that the NAEP has its limitations.

“NAEP cannot tell us about our students’ ability to produce a carefully polished piece of writing,” she said. “The board set NAEP’s performance standards with this limitation in mind.”

Results Mixed

The nation’s 4th and 8th graders have shown slight increases in their average scores on the NAEP writing test, but one in four high school seniors still has trouble drafting effective written responses to test questions.

More of the younger students can write at a “basic” level, and more can demonstrate mastery in the subject than in 1998, when the writing test was first administered. The performance of 12th graders has remained flat.

The assessment was given to more than 250,000 students, including a nationally representative sample at each of the three grade levels and cohorts of 4th and 8th graders in more than 40 states. The test was designed to gauge students’ proficiency in writing narrative, informational, and persuasive pieces.

Nationally, 4th graders scored an average 154 on a 300-point scale, 8th graders averaged 153 points, and 12th graders scored 148 points. In 1998, the baseline year for comparing students’ performance on future tests, the average score for each of the grades was set at 150. Although the improvement in the lower two grades is considered statistically significant, the 2-point drop for the 12th grade is not.

More than eight in 10 students in the 4th and 8th grades showed at least partial mastery of the knowledge and skills considered necessary for proficiency at those levels, a level of performance defined by the test as “basic,” while nearly three- fourths of high school seniors could write at that level.

Just 26 percent of 4th graders, 29 percent of 8th graders, and 22 percent of 12th graders scored at the “proficient” level on the tests, meaning they could produce a detailed and organized response that supports their main idea and demonstrates an understanding of the writing task, among other things. The tests were given between January and March 2002.

Lower Priority?

The results come at a time when more attention is being focused on improving reading instruction in the elementary and middle grades. In many school districts, those efforts also have incorporated greater opportunities for writing.

In Connecticut, where state curriculum guidelines and assessments have emphasized the importance of writing for nearly two decades, 4th graders outperformed their peers throughout the country, scoring an average of 174 points. The state’s 8th graders were also among the best in the nation, averaging 159 points, about the same as Massachusetts, Vermont, and Ohio.

“We have, in fact, been focusing on writing for 18 years,” said Thomas W. Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut education department. “As a result, our teachers ... have become adept at focusing on more writing every day.”

Writing instruction, though, has often been viewed as a lower priority than the teaching of reading and mathematics. Two recent reports have complained that inadequate time and attention are devoted to teaching students to communicate accurately and effectively in writing.

The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges this past April called for “a writing revolution” in schools. The 20-member panel of scholars and school administrators convened by the College Board, the New York City-based sponsor of the SAT, called for schools to double the time spent on writing. (“Panel Calls for Writing Revolution in Schools,” April 30, 2003.)

Last fall, a national survey of high school teachers, commissioned by the Concord Review, found that few of the nation’s high school students are required to research and write lengthy papers on topics of historical significance, such as those published in the journal itself, a showcase for precollegiate work.

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