Monday, April 7, 2008

Writing Achievement? Part 1

The New York Times reported last week that despite the fact that about two-thirds of America’s eight grade students and about three-fourths of high school seniors failed to reach proficient writing levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal government is “encouraged by the results” (Dillon, 2008). You read that correctly. With a minority of our students achieving proficiency in writing, the federal government finds cause for celebration.

The Fed’s optimism rests in the contrast of the results with other indicators of student achievement. For some time, the general conclusion has been that student writing capacity is in free-fall. However, the NAEP results show “modest increases in the writing skills of low-performing students” (Dillon, 2008). This is hailed as success, even though the performance of high-performing students remain unchanged.

What’s going on here? Are we so desperate for good news that even a failure to achieve proficiency is hailed as a victory? Certainly the gains achieved by low-performing students are moving in the right direction, but in four years since the last NAEP, those gains are merely modest while other scores remained unaffected.

And the celebrated “gains” are highly questionable. In the same report, the Times cites a 2006 survey of college professors that suggests a large majority of college students possess “limited writing skills” (Dillon, 2008), and a 2003 study that found American companies are spending billions of dollars on remedial training for employees—some “new hires straight out of college” (Dillon, 2008).

So, we have conflicting viewpoints. We should be excited by the moderate gains on the recent NAEP, but we should be mindful of the continued challenge we face in developing student writing capacity.

To me, even the NAEP results make a stronger case for being mindful of the challenge than excited by the gains. With nearly 75% of our seniors still lacking proficiency, the challenge far outweighs a reason for celebration.

However, some fundamental questions remain. Is the NAEP measuring writing ability? If we accept that it is measuring writing ability, what does it mean for instruction? And why are our current instructional efforts yielding such poor results?

I’ll address these questions in my next posting.

Dillon, S. (2008). In test, few students are proficient writers. The New York Times, accessed April 3, 2008 via

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