US kids' writing skills found wanting

Last week's report that three-quarters of American schoolchildren failed to score at the proficient level in a national writing test has raised serious questions about how to improve their skills (see related column, page 11). Some 60,000 fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders in 35 participating states were tested. Students, who came from both public and private schools, had 25 minutes each to complete two assignments designed to measure narrative, informative, and persuasive writing.

Here are some sample questions used by the National Assessment Governing Board, which developed the test:

Fourth-graders:

"We all have favorite objects that we care about and would not want to give up.

"Think of one object that is important or valuable to you. For example, it could be a book, a piece of clothing, a game, or any object you care about.

"Write about your favorite object. Be sure to describe the object and explain why it is valuable or important to you."

Eighth-graders:

"Imagine this situation!

"A noise outside awakens you one night. You look out the window and see a spaceship. The door of the spaceship opens, and out walks a space creature. What does the creature look like? What does the creature do? What do you do?

"Write a story about what happens next."

12th-graders:

"Your school is sponsoring a voter registration drive for 18-year-old high school students. You and three of your friends are talking about the project. Your friends say the following.

"Friend 1: 'I'm working on the young voters' registration drive. Are you going to come to it and register? You're all 18, so you can do it. We're trying to help increase the number of young people who vote and it shouldn't be too hard - I read that the percentage of 18-to-20-year-olds who vote increased in recent years. We want that percentage to keep going up.'

"Friend 2: 'I'll be there. People should vote as soon as they turn 18. It's one of the responsibilities of living in a democracy.'

"Friend 3: 'I don't know if people should even bother to register. One vote in an elections isn't going to change anything.'

"Do you agree with friend 2 or 3? Write a response to your friends in which you explain whether you will or will not register to vote. Be sure to explain why and support your position with examples from your reading or experience. Try to convince the friend with whom you disagree that your position is the right one."

Overall, girls performed better than boys in each grade, with twice as many girls reaching or exceeding proficiency as boys. Racial and ethnic gaps also emerged: White and Asian students wrote better than African-Americans, Hispanics, and native Americans.

In an example of proficient writing by a senior, a girl told a story about falling in love and marrying another Italian immigrant who died after the birth of their four children. "As I gaze out my window, I turn to look at my hand still wearing that same gold ring from so many years ago. I smile because I know I don't need to bring him back.... I never really lost him," the girl concluded the five-paragraph essay.

The National Center of Education Statistics said her essay was well-organized "and shows good command of stylistic elements and control of language."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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