U.S. student writing gets a bit better

Assessment test shows gains for eighth- and 12th graders overall. But race and gender gaps persist.

American students are slowly getting better at crafting sentences and using the written word to persuade and explain.

That's the good news in the latest results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which on Thursday released its 2007 writing results, the first time eighth- and 12th-graders were tested in the subject since 2002.

There's little change at the top: the portion of students reaching NAEP's "proficient" level in the test didn't change in either grade. But both grades saw significant jumps in the percentage scoring at the "basic" level – a particular achievement for 12th-graders, who as a group have stagnated in other subjects.

Large achievement gaps still persist, though – between white and minority students, higher-income and low-income students, and, far more than in other subjects, between girls and boys.

"The overall improvement in 12th grade is the first good news out of high schools, and that's great," says Amy Wilkins, vice president at the Education Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap. "But our excitement about that is seriously tempered by the lack of national gap closing."

The NAEP test, often called the "nation's report card," is administered nationally to a representative group of students and is considered the best benchmark of students' progress over time in a range of subjects.

The assessment measured students' writing skills through narrative stories and informative and persuasive letters and essays, judging aspects such as organization and sentence structure. Eighth-graders, for instance, were asked to write a letter responding to a student moving to America. Twelfth-graders argued whether "big" or "small" inventions had more of an impact.

Many are viewing results with interest, given writing's importance in the American workplace – and recent studies showing that so few students are prepared for college-level English.

"It's perhaps the most important skill when it comes to how students do in college and the workplace," says Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which advocates tougher educational standards. Mr. Petrilli lauds the 12th-grade improvement and wonders whether the recent addition of writing to the SATs has contributed.

The average score for 12th-graders went from 148 points in 2002 to 153 in 2007, and the portion of students scoring at the basic level or above improved from 74 percent to 82 percent. The biggest gains among eighth-graders were also among low performers, with more students reaching the basic level. It's a trend that has also emerged in NAEP tests on other subjects: the lowest performers are getting better, with little change at the middle or top.

"I think that's good news," says Darvin Winick, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board. "So much of the effort in both state and national education policy has been with those youngsters who don't do as well."

Others say it's not enough. "In this increasingly competitive world, basic doesn't cut it," says Ms. Wilkins, who is also impatient with those who say racial and economic achievement gaps are immovable, noting nine states significantly narrowed gaps.

"It's time to bear down and study what's going on in those states," she says.

The writing test also shows a large gender gap, with girls outscoring boys by 20 points in eighth grade and 18 points in 12th grade. It's a gap that has changed little from prior tests.

There is some good news for large cities, whose students are still performing below the national average, but are making gains about twice as fast as the nation as a whole. Individual trend lines are available for four cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston – where all but Houston made significant improvements, generally at a much faster rate than their state.

"We're encouraged," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "We're obviously not satisfied until we come closer to the national averages, but we're closer to that in writing than in reading or math."

Mr. Casserly's organization has reviewed instructional programs around the country, finding greater emphasis on writing.

"Cities have been pretty active in trying to pick up the pace in overall literacy performance," says Casserly. "We're seeing the results of some of that."

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