Writing-Skills Tests Show Inadequacy: Most Students Aren't at Grade Level

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Only about one fourth of students tested in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades are able to write at their grade level, a national writing assessment test found.

While about 75 percent of the students were able to write at a "basic" level, demonstrating a "partial mastery" of skills, close to a fifth of the children tested nationwide failed to meet even minimal writing standards.

That's according to results released yesterday from the 1998 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Writing Report for the Nation and States.

"Writing skills are essential for demonstrating knowledge in any subject matter," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. "While concern for education has been elevated nationwide, we cannot relax and assume the job of educating our children is getting done sufficiently.

"When 75 percent of American children are not writing even up to grade level, it only reinforces that the current system has failed them miserably," she said.

The federal test of writing achievement was given to 60,000 students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades in 1998, the first time the test has been administered since 1992. An additional 100,000 students in the eighth grade were tested in 35 states and four jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia.

Students were tested on three types of writing: narrative, informative and persuasive. The NAEP Report Card defined writing scores at three levels: basic, proficient and advanced.

The 1998 results, called "sobering" by one educator, were released yesterday by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

"The average, or typical, American student is not a proficient writer," said Gary W. Phillips, acting commissioner for the NCES. "Instead, students show only partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for solid academic performance in writing."

Added Marilyn Whirry, a 12th-grade English teacher and member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which set the NAEP test scores and standards: "It is clear from the report that many students are able to write at a basic, minimally effective level, but far too few can produce strong, coherent prose."

The report found only 23 percent of fourth-graders wrote at the proficient level or above, which meant - in the testers' terms - that they could deliver a solid academic performance and write competently about challenging subject matter. Eighty-four percent wrote at the basic level or above, and 16 percent were below the basic level.

For eighth-graders, 27 percent were at least proficient and 16 percent were below basic. For 12th-graders, 22 percent were proficient and 22 percent were below basic.

At each grade level, only 1 percent of students wrote at an advanced level, which signifies a superior performance, the survey found.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley used the release of the national test scores to ask Congress for more funding for reading and writing programs and to back President Clinton's class-size initiative. …