America's students improve in writing, at least in lower grades

Students in US schools are writing a bit better today than they were four years ago - at least in the lower grades.

That's the news from the results of the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress writing exam (a Monitor story on the reading portion appeared June 24). Fourth-graders and eighth-graders showed noticeable gains since 1998, when the test was last given, while 12th-grade scores remained flat.

Overall, however, the 2002 assessment found that more than two-thirds of the nation's students still write below the "proficient" level. Despite that discouraging news, some experts see the improvement as a significant achievement.

"Seeing gains is good, especially at the younger level," says Kathy Christie, policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "There are still too many below proficient, but the gains [validate] the direction we're headed in and the emphasis placed on writing."

Not only do many new state academic standards stress writing, says Ms. Christie, but statewide exams now generally include a writing component as well, increasing the pressure on both teachers and students to make writing well a classroom focus.

Other findings from the test might also be important. In grades 4 and 8, the writing scores of all ethnic groups tracked - white, black, and Hispanic - showed improvement. Meanwhile, the gap narrowed between scores of black and white students in fourth grade. \

At the 12th-grade level, however, males actually showed a significant decline, and the male-female performance gap widened compared with 1998.

Some analysts question whether including 12th-graders in the test is practical. Often 12th-grade scores are poor, and some educators surmise it's because students on the verge of graduating are hard to engage in a test they may not care about.

Others argue that it's critical to know how high school seniors are performing as they prepare to enter college or the workforce.

The NAEP tests challenge students to try their hands at narrative, informative, and persuasive writing. Younger students are asked to write for 25 minutes at a stretch, while older students may have tasks that require 50 minutes for completion.

Some analysts may try to turn higher NAEP writing scores into a triumph for the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal education law, but it's too early for that, Christie says.

She thinks more credit should go to state standards and to a dawning recognition that "writing is a necessity of life, and we all have to get better at it."

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