April 14, 2008

Profs React to National Writing Report Card

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When the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress Writing Assessment came out two weeks ago, the results — which have improved little in the recent past — raised questions about our nation’s education system.
The study found that about a third of eighth graders and one fourth of twelfth graders scored at the proficient level in writing. The report, called “The Nation’s Report Card,” revealed that there was no improvement in the proficiency level of students.
“The board decided proficiency is the desired goal which the nation as a whole should set as a standard. It is a standard that is set pretty high,” said Charles Smith, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). “One of the things we have seen occurring is that we’re seeing considerable movement take place out of the below basic to the basic, and more and more students are achieving at the basic level now.”
The test scores were divided into basic, proficient and advanced levels. Although there was no improvement at the proficient level, there was significant improvement at the basic level. According to the report, the percentage of eighth graders performing at the basic level increased by three percent from 2002, and the percentage of 12th graders increased by eight percent.
Among 12th graders, white students outperformed black and Hispanic students with no improvement in the score gaps. Additionally, results showed that females continue to outscore males.
New York ranked 20th in terms of proficiency, with 31 percent of students scoring at the proficient level.
However, the question remains whether our nation’s education system prepares its students for higher education. At Cornell, professors share mixed views as to the writing abilities students come in with.
“I’ve been teaching freshmen at Cornell for about 30 years, every year there are some students who come in who write incredibly well, some who have some difficulty. I don’t see any cause to worry,” said Prof. Joseph Martin, director of the writing workshop at the John S. Knight Institute.
Prof. Paul Sawyer, director of the John S. Knight Institute that runs freshman writing seminars, acknowledged that while a formal essay structure may have been emphasized more in the past, students’ writing today is not any less interesting. He said it would be difficult to believe that student writing quality has declined because students are now writing more than ever, through channels such as instant messaging.
Both Martin and Sawyer said that the test itself may not be the best assessment of student writing performance.
“Our writing program at Cornell stresses writing as a process rather than a product, so at Cornell we would especially question looking at the rough draft as the final draft and making the judgments on the basis of that,” Sawyer said.
According to Sawyer, overall, students coming to Cornell write well. While he acknowledged there are still many deficiencies, the majority of students coming to Cornell usually have gone to school districts that can afford to educate them well. The low-income school districts, he said, are the most concerning.
Smith said that the report analyzed income level by looking at the students who were eligible for free and reduced lunches. It showed that low-income students scored at a lower level, which has been a consistent result throughout the years that the test has been administered.
“Our society is very unequal. Some high schools obviously have the resources to do well,” said Sawyer.
According to Sawyer, the best way for states to work on improving student writing is to increase funding.
“[The National Center for Education Statistics] usually holds a workshop for state departments of education … where … results can be analyzed … with [its] personnel standing by to answer questions,” William Tirre, senior research scientists at NCES, stated in an e-mail. “It is up to these education officials to interpret their data and to design and implement educational policy changes as they see fit.”
According to Smith, the NAGB was mandated by congress to exclusively produce accurate data on student performance and is prohibited from dictating curriculum.
The 2007 writing assessment was the third one administered. The first one was in 1998, and then next one will be in 2011.