April 4, 2008
U.S. Students Achieve Mixed Results on Writing Test
By SAM DILLON
About a third of the nation’s eighth-grade students, and roughly a quarter of its high school seniors, are proficient writers, according to nationwide test results released Thursday.
That proportion of students demonstrating writing proficiency is about the same as in 2002, when a similar exam was last given.
But the results of the latest test, administered last year, also found modest increases in the skills of lower-performing students. Nearly 9 students in 10 can now demonstrate at least a basic achievement in writing, defined as partial mastery of the skills needed for proficient work.
As in the past, girls outperformed boys by far, most decisively at the eighth-grade level, where 41 percent of them achieved proficiency, compared with 20 percent of boys. The racial achievement gap narrowed slightly, with black and Hispanic students’ writing improving a bit more than did whites’.
The results for eighth graders, though not for seniors, were broken down by states, the top performers of which were New Jersey, where 56 percent of students scored at or above proficiency levels, and Connecticut, where the number was 53 percent. Nineteen states ranked above New York, where it was 31 percent.
That a third of the nation’s eighth graders can write with proficiency may not sound like much, but it is the best performance by eighth-grade students in any subject tested in the national assessment in the last three years. Only 17 percent of eighth graders were proficient on the 2006 history exam, for example.
Though some experts questioned whether the writing test, which requires students to compose only brief essays in a short time, was an accurate measure of their ability, officials of the government’s testing program said they were encouraged by the results.
“I am happy to report, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that the death of writing has been greatly exaggerated,” said Amanda P. Avallone, an eighth-grade English teacher who is vice chairwoman of the board that oversees the testing program, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.”
The results were released at the Library of Congress in Washington. The host, James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, drew laughs when he expressed concern about “the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought — the sentence,” as young Americans do most of their writing in disjointed prose composed in Internet chat rooms or in cellphone text messages.
“The sentence is the biggest casualty,” Mr. Billington said. “To what extent is students’ writing getting clearer?”
Ms. Avallone sought to allay his concern.
“I know that the sentence has not been put to rest as a unit of communication,” she said.
Ms. Avallone also said the difference in scores between girls and boys might result in part from lower literacy expectations for boys in the public schools.
“These days I seldom if ever hear the message that math and science do not matter for girls,” she said, “yet I do still encounter the myth that many boys won’t really need to write very much or very well once they leave school.”
The national writing test was given to 140,000 eighth graders and 28,000 12th graders selected to form a representative sample of all students nationwide in the two grades. Each student wrote two 25-minute essays intended to measure skills at writing to inform, persuade and tell stories.
Thirty-three percent of eighth graders scored at or above the proficiency level, which the test designers defined as competency in carrying out challenging academic tasks. Eighty-eight percent scored at or above the basic level, up from 85 percent in 2002.
“These results pleased and encouraged me,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s 60 largest urban districts. “A lot of cities have introduced explicit writing programs. You go into urban schools and you see hallways lined with samples of student writing. Writing programs have gotten better.”
If Mr. Casserly was encouraged, some others were not, particularly in light of other indicators of Americans’ writing prowess. A survey of 120 corporations conducted by the College Board in 2003, for instance, concluded that a third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies, including many recent college graduates, wrote poorly.
“American students’ writing skills are deteriorating,” said Will Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, a journal that features history research papers written by high school students.
Mr. Fitzhugh expressed skepticism that the national assessment accurately measured students’ overall writing skills, because, he said, it tested only their ability to write brief essays jotted out in half an hour.
“The only way to assess the kind of writing that students will have to do in college,” he said, “is to have them write a term paper, and then have somebody sit down and grade it. And nobody wants to do that, because it’s too costly.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company