New England States Lead Nation in Writing Scores
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
New England states led the country in posting higher writing scores for fourth- and eighth-graders, according to a new federal report released July 10 that serves as a benchmark for how well states are improving their students' writing.
The average writing skills of fourth-graders ranked higher in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Delaware while Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont posted higher average scores for eighth-grade writing, according to The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2002 from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).
The NAEP scores come at a time when states are putting together their own testing programs, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind education law. Taken together, the NAEP score and states' own assessments will provide educators and policy makers with a better idea of the progress that states are making to ensure all students are proficient in math and English by 2013, as required by the Bush administration's sweeping education law.
"The nation's children are writing better, which is indeed encouraging news," U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a prepared statement. But despite some gains, more than two-thirds of the nation's students still perform below the "proficient" level, the secretary said. A proficient level is defined as showing "competency over challenging subject matter" for the grade assessed. "We still have a lot of work to do," the secretary said.
Of the 32 states that participated in the 1998 and 2002 NAEP writing tests, 15 states showed improvements (see side bar) and no state showed a significant decline. The 2002 report is the first to include state-level data on fourth-grade writing. There is no state-by-state NAEP testing at grade 12.
Eighth-grade students in schools run by the Department of Defense also scored above average. Writing scores among high school seniors remained flat.
Some education experts said it's no surprise that certain states scored higher. Delaware, for example, implemented tougher writing standards in 1995, said Kathy Christie, vice president for knowledge management with the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization involving key leaders from all levels of the education system.
The states with the higher scores understood the importance of writing and put writing assessments in place, in many cases, sooner than other states, and the higher scores reflect that, Christie told Stateline.org.
"A lot of the state reforms are in place now and I'm hoping this is one of the indicators that things are working," said David Griffith of the National Association of State Boards of Education, a non-profit that represents state and territorial boards of education.
The better results may also be a result of public outcry. "Ten years ago, there was tremendous criticism of the writing skills of students ... part of this is from public pressure as much as standards," Christie said.
The National Education Association, the country's largest teachers' union, said the improvements could be a reflection of several factors, including tests in many states that use open-ended items that require written responses. However, the NEA said it is concerned that the new annual testing requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law will prompt states to do just the opposite and opt for multiple-choice questions that are easier to correct than written responses.
"We cannot expect NAEP writing scores to improve if the time for writing instruction is decreasing and its importance is diminished by overemphasis of performance on high stakes multiple choice tests," the NEA said.
Future NAEP reports are expected to show a closer tie with No Child Left Behind. Prior to that federal education law, it was up to the states to decide whether to administer the NAEP test. Now, under No Child Left Behind, states will have to give the test. States also have to test students every year in grades 3-8 and once during high school in math and reading/language arts under the new education law. Education experts will be able to look at how well students did on NAEP, compared to how well they did on their state's own tests.
The writing results appear to show more improvement than the NAEP reading scores posted last month. Overall, reading scores remain mixed. The nation's fourth-graders have improved their reading skills since 1998, but test scores for eighth-graders remained flat and 12th-graders declined over that same period, according to the June NAEP report.
The NAEP report is one of several issued this year. In September, the first NAEP reports required under No Child Left Behind assessing math and reading scores for 2003 will be released.
NAEP is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, an independent agency housed within the U.S. Department of Education. A bipartisan governing board determines the content and standards of the test.