GWEN Faulkner's fourth-grade classroom at the Harriet Tubman Elementary School here is not the American norm.
Busy children are writing and illustrating stories about trips to the National Zoo and the Baltimore Aquarium. Unlike most fourth-grade classes, Ms. Faulkner's class spends most of the day working on their writing, even when learning social studies or science.
But Secretary of Education Richard Riley chose Tubman Elementary to announce on Tuesday the results of the ``1992 Writing Report Card,'' which says that although American students can write, they cannot write well.
The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which sets policy for the Report Card and is associated with the US Department of Education, says writing has improved since their last study in 1988, but not by much. The board is issuing a trend report based on research since testing started in 1969.
Writing skills have not improved because children do not spend enough time on writing in school - often less than two hours a week, the study shows, which is still almost an hour more than the level in 1988. Meanwhile, 87 percent of eighth-graders are spending more than two hours a day watching television.
According to the report, 12th-graders in the lowest-ranking schools studied have worse writing skills than eighth-graders in the top-ranking schools. Less than 2 percent of all students surveyed - 30,000 fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders - can write a well-developed thesis paper.
Although the report did not make suggestions on how to improve writing, Mr. Riley did: ``All the reforms in Washington will not matter a great deal unless parents are parents and give their children the love of learning.'' Riley said that teachers should spend more time teaching writing and students should spend more time in school in general.
Experts think other things can be done to improve America's schools as well.
Marilyn Whirry, a writing teacher in Manhattan Beach, Calif., says teachers need to learn how to teach writing. Ms. Whirry, who trains writing teachers nationwide, teaches students how to go through the process of writing: planning, drafting, rewriting, and editing.
Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar on education at New York University, places some of the blame for kids' poor writing skills on teachers. ``They say that kids don't do the homework so they don't assign it.'' she says. Teaching writing, Ms. Ravitch says, would not require new programs or extra money: ``It's just a question of will and time.''