WASHINGTON -- From essays to arguments, the writing of America's young students is getting better, but the quality of prose by high school seniors is slipping.
Students in the fourth and eighth grades have made significant strides in handling challenging writing assignments, according to 2002 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
But the proportion of high school seniors writing at a basic 12th-grade level has dropped since the previous test in 1998, increasing concerns about how ready students are for college or work.
Although the 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.
"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 news.
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 Hispanics.
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 top performers.
"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 seniors essentially held flat, but the proportion of 12th-graders who reached at least the basic level dropped from 78 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 declining performance among seniors has become a trend across topics, as 12th-grade scores have also dropped in reading, math and science in recent years.
"The 12th grade scores are a real indication that students aren't ready to go to college and do the work that's expected of them," said Gaston Caperton, president of The College Board, which oversees the college-entrance test known as the SAT. Caperton leads a national commission aimed at improving writing, described by his group as the forgotten fundamental.
"We're not blaming teachers and we're not blaming schools," Caperton said. "We're saying they have to be given time and resources to complete a task everybody agrees is so important."
Writing and the grading of papers take time, which is hard to find within the school day.
Societal factors get in the way, too, as many students parents turn on a television instead of grabbing a book, said Kay Esmiol, an eighth-grade teacher in Colorado Springs, Colo. Her students engage in creative writing, check each other's work and keep a portfolio.
"I give them immediate reactions, and very extensive ones," said Esmiol, who said her writing students thrive. "I put my grades in pencil, because that's how important they are -- not at all. What's important is your ability to communicate effectively."
On the national writing test, students were given a range of assignments, from penning a letter to a newspaper editor to composing a tale about a character with superhuman ability. 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.
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