Reading & Literacy

U.S. Students Lack Writing Proficiency

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 06, 1999 8 min read
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More American students have mastered basic skills in writing than in reading, national test results released here last week show, but few can write precise, engaging, and coherent prose appropriate to their grade levels.

Writing Right
The chart shows the percentages of students, by grade, who reached successive achievement levels on the NAEP writing assessment.
Below Basic At or Above Basic At or Above Proficient Advanced

Grade 4

Grade 8
Grade 12
“The NAEP 1998 Writing Report Card for the Nation and the States” is available at
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

At least three-fourths of students in the grades tested are not proficient in writing, according to the report on tests given last year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Moreover, 16 percent of 4th and 8th graders, and 22 percent of 12th graders, have not mastered even basic writing skills.

The results for a random, nationally representative sample of 60,000 students in those three grades are not comparable to the last NAEP test in writing, which was given in 1992 and provided only numerical scores. The 1998 exam, in contrast, also rates students by achievement levels--termed “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.”

Last year’s exam was the first NAEP writing test to include state-by-state results, acquired by testing an additional random sample of 100,000 8th graders.

Connecticut’s 8th graders were first among 39 jurisdictions taking the tests, with an average score of 165 on a 300-point scale--17 points above the national average. More than 90 percent of Connecticut’s students performed at or above the basic level, 44 percent demonstrated proficiency or better, and 5 percent displayed advanced skills. The state’s nationally recognized mastery tests, which include open-response questions, are credited with drawing more attention to the importance of writing instruction.

Maine, Massachusetts, Texas, and Wisconsin, as well as the Department of Defense schools, also earned scores above the national average.

California was among the 17 states scoring lower than the national average, with a scale score of 141. Fewer than one in five of the state’s 8th graders showed proficiency in writing, while one in four could not demonstrate basic skills.

The U.S. Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Hawaii were the lowest-performing jurisdictions, all having fewer than 15 percent of their students demonstrate writing proficiency.

But the overall results have left education experts at odds over whether to be alarmed or optimistic about students’ level of success with crucial communication skills.

Marilyn Whirry, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, called the report “encouraging and sobering.”

While most of the students tested can write at least at the basic level, “writing at the basic level-- even at 12th grade--is not particularly sophisticated and certainly not powerful,” said Ms. Whirry, who teaches 12th grade English at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

“The sobering side of the coin is that such a small proportion of students ... can write the effective, fully developed response that is required for proficient writing.”

The congressionally mandated exam, which is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, is the only continuing, nationally representative survey of what U.S. students know and are able to do in core subjects.

‘Pretty Tough Standard’

The report drew critical reviews from some prominent educators and lawmakers.

U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House education committee, said he was “saddened” by the report, which he said reflected the need for improved teacher training.

Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, which advocates the setting of high academic standards, called the results--particularly gaps between girls and boys and between whites and minority groups--"an indication of our failure to teach writing.”

But U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley was generally pleased that most students showed at least basic skills, given what he called the high and demanding standards used in scoring the tests.

Some literacy experts agreed.

“There is a tendency to believe that if someone is at the basic level that they are incompetent,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, a Newark, Del.-based organization that represents reading teachers and scholars. “Basic is certainly not the highest level of writing, but it is not what I would indicate is a failing grade,” he said. “This NAEP sets a pretty tough standard.”

The NAEP governing board defines basic as partial mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary for proficiency in writing. Proficient denotes solid academic performance and competency in challenging subject matter. Students performing at the advanced level displayed superior performance in writing compelling prose.

Board officials warned that the achievement levels are considered developmental, meaning the process of setting meaningful and consistent standards is ongoing.

A study released last fall by the National Research Council described the process of setting NAEP achievement levels as “fundamentally flawed,” and charged that raters’ judgments about the quality of test answers were “internally inconsistent.” Taking those criticisms into account, the panel that wrote the council’s report concluded that the current achievement levels should be replaced by the end of this year.

Inexplicable Inconsistency

The results released last week show that more students reached the basic level in writing than they did on the latest NAEP reading test, also given in 1998. In results issued this past February, nearly 40 percent of 4th graders, and about one-fourth of 8th and 12th graders, taking the exam exhibited less than basic skills. More students at all three grade levels, however, demonstrated proficiency in reading than in writing. ( “U.S. Students Bounce Back in Reading,” Feb. 17, 1999.)

The two sets of scores do not reflect the generally accepted logic that in order to write well, a student must read well. Education officials were at a loss to explain the apparent inconsistency, except for the possibility of variations in the achievement-level standards, which were set by two separate committees and assess different skills.

On the writing test, students were asked to draft responses in three different styles: narrative, informative, and persuasive. They had 25 minutes to complete a first draft that followed the indicated writing style. Some 8th graders, for example, were asked to write an informative letter to the president of a television network describing an idea for an educational series. The writer was rated proficient if the letter was clear and organized, had a clear beginning and ending, and a coherent rationale for the proposed show.

The writing samples were also rated for their mastery of written rules, including sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. An excerpt deemed advanced, for example, would have fewer errors in grammar and spelling than those rated lower.

As with NAEP tests in other subjects, the writing assessment produced significant scoring gaps based on students’ gender and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Nearly 90 percent of girls reached at least the basic level, while 30 percent were proficient. Fewer than 80 percent of boys showed basic skill in writing, while just 16 percent showed proficiency. Girls have traditionally outperformed boys on the national reading and writing tests, while boys have proved superior, especially in the 4th and 8th grades, on science and mathematics tests.

Black and Hispanic students fell considerably behind their white peers. While 90 percent of white 4th and 8th graders could write at the basic level or better, the percentage of black and Hispanic students who could do so was about 70 percent. Among white students, 29 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders were proficient, while only 8 percent of black youngsters and about 10 percent of Hispanics in those grades met that standard. Twelfth graders showed similar gaps.

Practice, Practice

Also in line with the results of previous tests, the writing skills of private school students were more advanced than those of their public school peers. The gap was largest among 8th graders, with 24 percent of public school students deemed proficient, compared with 44 percent of private school students. Following previous trends, the higher the parents’ educational levels, the better their children performed on the test.

Test-takers’ responses to survey questions on the assessment show that students who take time to plan and outline their ideas for class-writing assignments--or who used scrap paper to do so for the NAEP test--tended to write better than their peers who are not in the habit of planning before undertaking an assignment.

Students who reported that they sometimes talk with their teachers about their writing scored higher on the test than those who reported they never did so. And students who saved their classwork in folders or compiled portfolios scored higher than those who didn’t.

The survey also shows, perhaps above all else, that the more students practice writing, the clearer and more sophisticated their prose becomes, according to Richard Sterling, the president of the National Writing Project. The organization, based at the University of California, Berkeley, designs teacher professional-development programs for improving writing instruction.

“If writing occurred in every classroom every day,” Mr. Sterling said, “student achievement would, in my view, reach new heights for all.”

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