Reading & Literacy

NAEP Writing Scores Improve, But Not for Seniors

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — July 10, 2003 4 min read
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The nation’s 4th and 8th graders have shown some improvement in their writing proficiency in the past several years, but one in four high school seniors still has trouble drafting effective written responses to test questions, signal the results of the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress in writing, released here July 10.

Although 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.

“While it appears that our nation’s schools are moving in the right direction in producing better writers, there is cause for guarded optimism,” U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a statement. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

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 40states. The test was designed to gauge students’ proficiency in writing narrative, informational, and persuasive pieces.

“The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2002,” from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

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, which is 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 given between January and March of 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 have incorporated greater opportunities for writing as well. 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, however, has often been viewed as a lower priority than the teaching of reading and mathematics. In recent months, two reports have lamented the inadequate time and attention devoted to teaching students to communicate accurately and effectively in writing.

For example, 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. And last fall, a national survey of high school students, 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.

Senior Slump

The 12th grade NAEP scores provide more evidence that most high school graduates are not prepared to do the academic writing required in college, according to Will Fitzhugh, the president of the Concord Review and the National Writing Board, which promote scholarly writing by high school students.

Mr. Fitzhugh said the written samples provided in the NAEP report reflect the current trend in school 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 said. “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 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, 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, 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.”

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