Utah eighth-graders are scoring just a stitch below national averages in writing, according to a new report released Thursday. But officials say achievement levels have come a long way in five years.

Marks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Utah and the nation are up among many student groups, according to the "Nation's Report Card," released Thursday, which presents results at the national level and for individual states.

Writing scores for Utah eighth-graders rose to 152 in 2007, a nine-point increase over the average score in 2002, and according to officials the score brings the state from underperforming the nation as a whole in writing to statistically even with the nation.

"Utah's large class sizes make writing assignments difficult for our teachers, but we are integrating the use of some new technology to help make grading papers easier on teachers," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington. "We hope to expand this to promote the use of more writing assignments."

The percentage of students in Utah who performed at or above basic levels was 84 percent, up from 77 percent in 2002.

State leaders say the improvement not only comes from teachers placing more of an emphasis on writing across the curriculum but the Direct Writing Assessment, which has only been in place for a few years.

"It's nice to see across-the-board increases," said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the State Board of Education. "But not as nice to see that the achievement gaps are all still there."

Utah girls outperform boys by 25 points. Asian/Pacific Islander and white students outperform Hispanic students by 28 points, and students who are not eligible for free and reduced-price lunch outperform low-income students by 19 points.

But leaders said the silver lining is that the gap between English language learners and native speakers is closing fast in Utah and is now nine points smaller than the national average gap.

NAEP tests a sample of around 3,000 students in each state. For more information please visit www.nationsreportcard.gov.

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