Arizona's youth lag in national writing test
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
July 11, 2003
WASHINGTON - From essays to arguments, the writing of America's young
students is getting better - but Arizona's pupils are struggling compared to
most of their peers.
Nationwide, students in the fourth and eighth grades have made significant
strides since 1998 in handling challenging writing assignments, according to
2002 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
However, Arizona ranked 41st lowest out of 43 states reporting 2002 scores on
the percentage of fourth-graders who write proficiently.
Fifteen percent of Arizona fourth-graders are considered proficient writers,
compared to 49 percent in the top-ranking state, Connecticut. Mississippi was
lowest at 13 percent.
And at the eighth-grade level, 20 percent of Arizona students are proficient,
34th lowest out of 42 states using the test. Connecticut was again highest, at
45 percent, and Mississippi lowest, at 13 percent.
Although the nation's overall writing trend is positive, the improvements must
be considered in context. Most students - about eight in 10 - wrote at a basic
level or better, which means they could get their point across with at least
some effectiveness and minimal mistakes.
But more than two-thirds of all students could not provide coherent answers
with clear language, supporting details, accurate punctuation and creative
thinking. Only writing of that quality was deemed "proficient," the mark
considered the national standard for students.
"The writing should be insightful, not just smooth," said Marilyn Whirry, a
member of the test's governing board and a former national teacher of the year.
"The ability to write clear English prose is more than an incidental tool. It is
a crucial means to organize our ideas, to find out what we are thinking, and to
connect with those we are trying to reach."
The national writing test, given to a representative sample of students, is run
by the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education
Department. It shows where students stand compared to where they should be - and
whether they're making gains.
It is the latter measure - change since the 1998 test - that offers the best
In fourth grade, 28 percent of students reached at least the proficient mark, up
from 23 percent. In eighth grade, 31 percent of students achieved at that level,
up from 27 percent. The average test scores increased for whites, blacks and
But in the improving areas, a closer look reveals some gaps. In eighth grade,
for example, scores were stagnant for hard-to-reach students who rank well below
"That tells us where we need to do our work," said Susan Sclafani, a counselor
to Education Secretary Rod Paige.
The average test score for high-school seniors essentially held flat, but the
proportion of 12th-graders who reached at least the basic level dropped from 78
percent to 74 percent. That means about a quarter of seniors, within a 25-minute
time limit, could not provide an organized answer that showed they understood
their task and their audience.
The sophistication of the questions grew by grade, as did the expectations of
graders, who watched for content, organization, sentence structure, grammar,
spelling and punctuation.
Write about this:
* Sample questions used to test the writing skills of students in grades
four, eight and 12:
Describe what lunchtime is like for you on a school day. Be sure to tell about
your lunchtime so that someone who has never had lunch with you on a school day
can understand where you have lunch and what lunchtime is like.
If you were told that you could save just one book for future generations, which
book would you choose?
Write an essay in which you discuss which book you would choose to save for
future generations and what it is about the book that makes it important to
save. Be sure to discuss in detail why the book is important to you and why it
would be important to future generations.
Imagine that you will participate in a "tall-tale writing contest" at your
school. Write your own tall tale. You can write about yourself, someone you
know, or someone you imagine. Be sure to give your main character whatever
superhuman abilities are necessary to save the day.