Test Reveals Good, Bad News About Student Writing Skills

The latest round of the Nation's Report Card tests has revealed some surprises about the quality of student writers. According to the report released by the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the exams, students who regularly use computers as part of their school work are more likely to have strong writing skills than their peers. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the report also shows merely a quarter of the country's 8th and 12th graders have good writing skills.

In total, 27% of essays in both levels were considered by graders to be well-developed, organized, and showing a strong grasp of proper grammar. Overall, 24% were deemed "proficient" in those categories while 3% were considered "advanced." Unfortunately, the remainder were found to be lacking in one, two, or all three of these areas.

Some perspective on the data was offered by Mary Crovo, the deputy executive director of NAGB, who pointed out that the essays should be considered "first draft" writing, and that the students' opportunity to edit was very limited. On the other hand, students who took the test last year enjoyed the advantage of having access to a computer that provided both a spellchecker and a thesaurus — something their peers from previous years did not have. Prior to 2011, the students wrote their essays using a pencil.

Because this was the first version of the computerized test, the board cautioned against comparing the results to previous exams. In 2007, some 33 percent of eighth-grade students scored at the proficient level, which represents solid writing skills, as did 24 percent at grade 12.

Crovo said most students already use such technology as spell-check on a daily basis. Without those tools, she said, "It's as if years ago we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser."

For those who thought that access to a spellchecker should result in a markedly better score, Crovo explained that expectation was unreasonable. Test graders focus less on proper spelling and word usage and more on the ability to organize ideas, make an argument and defend a point of view. When it comes to grading, grammar also takes priority over spelling.

Still, students who've shown that they had experience using the provided tools – the number of times they hit the backspace key and queried the spell-checker was also tracked and used as an indicator – produced better essays than their peers. Students with scores in the lowest quarter were more likely to come from homes without an access to a computer. Only 87% of those in the bottom quartile had personal computers, compared to 99% of those in the top quartile.

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