Only about one-fourth of middle-school and high school students in the United States write at a proficient level, according to a new report on the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2011 writing test.
Beside showing that a large majority of U.S. students are not proficient in writing, test results highlighted a gender gap in writing proficiency. Female students scored much higher than males at both grade levels, revealing a gender gap for writing much larger than the better-known mathematics gender gap that favors male students.
Gender gap: A representative sample of 24,100 eighth-graders from 950 schools, and 28,100 12th-graders from 1,220 schools took the test. For part of the report's survey data, students, teachers and school officials were asked how writing is taught and whether computers are available to students. The surveys showed that 53 percent of girls considered writing a favorite activity, but only 35 percent of boys answered that writing is a favorite activity. Girls also reported writing more than boys, both for homework and on their own.
"If girls are writing more, that could very well account for them doing better on the assessment. We do better at things we practice," said education analyst Sue Pimentel, leader of the team that created the new common core state standards for English language arts and literacy that will be implemented in 37 states over the next two years. The new standards are designed to create a more rigorous and consistent standard for education in schools across the U.S.
Disappointing scores: Twenty-four percent of students at both grades eight and 12 performed at the proficient level, meaning they were able to accomplish the communicative purpose of their writing. Fifty-four percent of eighth-graders and 52 percent of 12th-graders performed at the basic level, showing partial mastery of fundamental skills at each grade level. At both grade levels, only 3 percent of students performed at an advanced level.
"It's troubling, given that success in our economy is increasingly based on knowledge and information and the ability to communicate effectively in writing," Pimentel said.
The test results were broken down by ethnicity, gender and school location. At grade eight, average writing scores were higher for Asian students than for other racial/ethnic groups. At grade 12, average writing scores were higher for white students, Asian students and students of two or more races than for black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaskan Native students.
Students taking the test were prompted to write samples geared for various purposes and audiences, such as writing to persuade, to explain and to convey experiences.
"The assessment tasks reflected writing situations common to both academic and workplace settings and asked students to write for several purposes and communicate to different audiences," according to NAEP's report. "The results of the 2011 writing assessment offer a new opportunity to understand the ability of eighth- and 12th-grade students to make effective choices in their writing and allow for insight into the role and impact of technology on writing education and performance."
Processing words: The test was the nation's first large-scale writing assessment taken by computer. The new version was designed to keep pace with trends in the academic and business worlds by allowing students to use word processing software, including spell-checking and a thesaurus.
"All serious writing today, whether in business, the professions or scholarly work, is done with computers or other digital media. That is what writing is, said Mark Warschauer, associate dean at the University of California Irvine's School of Education. "It makes no more sense to test writing without computers than it does to offer a driver's test using horses and buggies."
There is much evidence that students who have regular access to computers in school write more than students who don't, and improve more in their writing proficiency, Warschauer said. The majority of K-12 students have access to computers at home, and the rest can usually use computers at libraries or other locations, he added.
"However, to help ensure that all students learn to write with computers, digital media needs to be better integrated into instruction at school, including making available low-cost laptops to students who are unable to bring their own to school," Warschauer concluded.
A path forward: NAEP's first computer-based writing assessment was not intended to report results for individual states, nor report on performance of individual students. Instead, the new test is meant as a report card for the nation as a whole.
The news that only one-quarter of secondary-school students write proficiently comes at a time when many schools must raise instructional standards to meet requirements of the common core state standards. Pimentel said the NAEP survey showed that schools need to assign more writing projects. She theorizes that schools' recent push for reading proficiency might have decreased emphasis on writing.
"There is a reading/writing connection," she said. "We're hopeful that a whole lot more writing will be taking place in schools. That should make a difference in the coming years."