Last Updated:August 20 @ 10:17 pm

Most students not proficient in writing

By Christine Armario

(AP) - Just a quarter of eighth and 12th grade students in the United States have solid writing skills, even when allowed to use spell-check and other computer word processing tools, according to results of a national exam released Friday.

Twenty-four percent of students at each grade level were able to write essays that were well developed, organized and had proper language and grammar. Three percent scored as advanced. The remainder showed just partial mastery of these skills.

"It is important to remember this is first draft writing," said Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the Nation's Report Card tests. "They did have some time to edit, but it wasn't extensive editing."

Students who took the writing test in 2011 had an advantage that previous test takers did not: a computer with spell-check and thesaurus. Previously, students taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test had to use pencil and paper, but with changes in technology, and the need to write across electronic formats, the decision was made to switch to computers.

Orr said students use technology and tools like spell-check on a daily basis. "It's as if years ago we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser," she said.

She said word processing tools alone wouldn't result in significantly better writing scores if students didn't have the core skills of being able to organize ideas and present them in a clear and grammatical fashion.

Still, students in both grades who used the thesaurus and the backspace key more frequently had higher scores than those who used them less often. Students in the 12th grade who had to write four or five pages a week for English homework also had higher scores.

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

The results at both grade levels showed a continued achievement gap between white, black, Hispanic and Asian students. At the eighth grade, Asian students had the highest average score, which was 33 points higher than black students on a 300-point scale. At the 12th grade, white students scored 27 points above black students.

There was also a gender gap, with girls scoring 20 points higher on average than boys in the eighth grade and 14 points higher in 12th grade. Those who qualified for free and reduced price lunch, a key indicator of poverty, also had lower scores than those who did not; there was a 27 point difference between the two at the eighth grade.

For the 2011 exam, laptops were brought into public and private schools across the country and more than 50,000 students were tested to get a nationally representative sample. Students were given prompts that required them to write essays that explained, persuaded or conveyed an experience.

Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor at Florida State University who served on the advisory panel for the test, said one factor to keep in mind is that research shows most students in the United States don't compose at the keyboard.

"What they do is sort of type already written documents into the machine, much as we used to do with typewriters four decades ago," she said.

Yancey said for this reason, there was some concern about having students write on the computer as opposed to by hand. Likewise, having the advantage of spell-check assumes students know how to use it. And in some schools and neighborhoods, computers are still not easily accessible.

"There are not so many students that actually learn to write composing at the keyboard," she said.

Yancey added that many kids who do have access to computers are not necessarily using them to write at school, but to take standardized tests and filling in bubbles.

"Digital technology is a technology," she said. "Paper and pencil is a technology. If technology were the answer, that would be pretty simple."

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16 Comments

  1. Regina WeinerComment by Regina Weiner
    September 14, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

    I taught ninth and tenth grade English before I retired two years ago. None of my students came to my class utterly incapable of organizing their thoughts into a coherent five-paragraph essay. This is fourth-grade achievement.
    If a child cannot write coherently, he cannot think coherently. I spent most of my class time showing them a graphic technique for essay writing, and a good deal more teaching them to diagram sentences, because they also had no understanding of grammar. The students improved greatly under direct instruction. There was no gap between races or genders. Most of my students were from a rural background. If I hadn’t already made retirement plans, I would have stayed longer, but I know this can be done.

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    • siquijorislandComment by siquijorisland
      September 15, 2012 @ 2:46 am

      I taught Korean, Japanese, some European students,and African students how to integrate into America. All very aggressive in learning customs, language, food variations, language and skills for survival in the U.S.
      Very impressed with the abilities of people who had studied in schools with dirt floors.

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  2. sexysadieComment by sexysadie
    September 14, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    Our entire education system is a total failure. As I’ve said in other forums, the entire public education system needs to be demolished. That means public schools, public school boards, teacher unions and federations, the NEA and all its poisonous supporters, the entire public school curricula, and everything else. We can start with Chicago since the teachers are so unhappy there. My question is this: what did students do 50 years ago when there were no computers, no spell-check, and no other technological aids?? They used their BRAINS! They were taught how to read, write and do mathematics WITHOUT a calculator! My goodness, what are we turning out children into??? There are many adults who previously were public school children who now can’t spell, can’t read, can barely put together a coherent sentence, and can’t do simple arithmetic without a calculator! We need to go back to a classical curricula with classically trained teachers. I do not believe that a degree a teacher makes. I’ve worked with plenty of teachers with advanced degrees who couldn’t see their way out of a classroom with airplane landing lights! Public schools, on the average, receive over $8,000.00 per student. Where is all that money going?? The students sure don’t seem to be any better for it. As a matter of fact, statistically speaking, American students are on the bottom of the barrel academically speaking, especially in math and science. Public schools don’t teach children to read properly, they certainly don’t teach spelling anymore, they don’t teach proper grammar, they don’t teach public speaking, and now they’re messing around with math trying to put the cart before the horse. Proper education has turned from teaching basic skills into socialistic indoctrination and social engineering. Kids don’t know how to read, write or do simple math, but they know how to put on a condom, where to go if they want an abortion, how to save the earth, recycling, saving whales and crocodiles, and that homosexuality is normal. These schools are nothing more than cesspools of propaganda. Every American should be outraged.

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    • dmg61Comment by dmg61
      September 14, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

      Well said Sexysadie…but one thing is left out of the equation…the PARENTS. Where are they? I was raised by my mother and grandparents. My mother was tired after working all day, but she came home and made sure I did my homework. She made sure I learned how to read before the teachers really taught me. My Uncle made sure I knew math before the other students. Once I did my homework, I could watch “Star Trek” (and TV was limited too!).

      Even when I went to college, I had a financial course teacher who informed us we were going to use a calculator made of wood and rubber… yes, our pencil. Pencil and paper. NO slide rulers (remember those?) or calculators. We were not allowed to use those until we could write everything out manually.

      I believe we turned out better students in the end…

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    • sexysadieComment by sexysadie
      September 15, 2012 @ 6:22 am

      dmg: You are absolutely correct. Parents have willingly relinquished their right and responsibility to educate their children. Now, this seems to be the case in many schools, even non-public schools, unfortunately. Many parents only seem to care about their children’s education when they come home crying and complaining about how mean their teacher is and how much their teacher dislikes them. Then, the parents storm the school in an outrage. Parents are the FIRST EDUCATORS. They don’t seem to realize this until little Bobby or Susie bring a note home from their teacher stating that the child is missing homework assignments. My favorite argument is when parents complain about too much homework. What they refuse to see is that their child wasted 90% of their study time fooling around rather than working on homework. Then, they go home to TV’s, computers, telephones, radios, ipads, iphones, and gameboys in their bedrooms while they are supposed to be doing homework! Then, they’re up to midnight and beyond trying to get it done–and believe me, it shows on the final product!

      I don’t know what’s gotten into parents today, but it is a sad disservice to their children and their children’s growth.

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    • thecitizenComment by thecitizen
      September 15, 2012 @ 8:46 am

      @ sexysadie: Spot! On!

      Students must be trained to use and rely on their – BRAINS – first!

      14 – 15 year olds (or even EIGHT year olds) reaching for a calculator (or cell phone, which has a calculator) to solve ‘six time seven’ or ‘nine divided by three’ is ridiculous. An abysmal failure of the education system.

      And that’s just a simple example. Expand it to other simple examples in other disciplines and the failure is obviously endemic.

      The entire education system in America is an empty chair, not doing the job and, should be let go.

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  3. thomasjeffersonComment by thomasjefferson
    September 14, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    Fifty years of liberal education where the lower requirements to allow for lazy or stupid students is the cause of this. A high school graduate today would fail miserably trying to take the final exam given in 1965.

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    • sexysadieComment by sexysadie
      September 15, 2012 @ 6:28 am

      It’s more than 50 years. The demise of education began at the turn of the 19th century thanks to John Dewey (“whole language” aka “see-say” etc.) and other “experts”. It all started with reading and has progressed to infect the entire gamut of learning. Now, we have reduced our learning standards to the lowest possible common denominator. As a result, no one learns much of anything.

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    • thecitizenComment by thecitizen
      September 15, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

      Sexiesadie may have a historical point but thomasjefferson, for practical purposes 50 years sounds about right to me for when it accelerated to the nth degree. What 2 things happened about 50 year ago? ‘Fermtive axion’ was taking firm hold and insinuating quotas into every facet of our lives, followed shortly by forced school busing.

      Combine those 2 factors and – voila – to produce results curricula was ‘dumbed down’. By the early 70′s those still incapable of passing were ‘passed on anyway’ to the next grade until they graduated.

      Just 40 years later, well, someone once said, “A human mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and our education system has methodically wasted millions and millions of bright, potential minds.

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  4. middlegroundComment by middleground
    September 14, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

    Holland seems to know how to run a successful system. Copy it or borrow from someone else, perhaps Finland.

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  5. CharlieComment by vietnamvet
    September 14, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

    Judging by signs carried in Wisconsin, and more recently in Chicago, it’s the teachers who are not proficient in writing … and they’re too ignorant of that fact to even be embarrassed.

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    • sexysadieComment by sexysadie
      September 15, 2012 @ 6:08 am

      You are absolutely correct! And now, we’re supposed to be thrilled and relieved that the Chicago teachers have reached an agreement. God help us all. Did you see some of those faces of those women?? Scarey is all I can say. I wouldn’t want my cat around those ignoramuses..

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    • sexysadieComment by sexysadie
      September 15, 2012 @ 6:30 am

      You can’t teach what you don’t know.

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    • canada3dayerComment by canada3dayer
      September 17, 2012 @ 3:48 am

      one of the signs I saw from Chicago read “Teachers our my cup of tea”. one can only hope that the carrier of that sign was not an English teacher…

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  6. laurierogersComment by laurierogers
    September 15, 2012 @ 9:22 am

    The reasons for this dismal performance by the government schools become clear when you know that:

    a) government schools have largely ditched teaching grammar or cursive writing in favor of computers and weak language arts programs (most of which have the students try to discover their way to writing)
    b) many district administrators and teachers do not believe in directly teaching the students basic grammatical or arithmetic skills. Some would go so far as to say that directing teaching the students basic skills, and having students practice those skills to mastery, is debilitating. (I chose that word deliberately, for I have heard that said.)
    c) students are constantly expected to work in groups, managing each other and coming to group consensus on answers. This approach is ineffective, inefficient, distracting, and a burden for the children.
    d) a social/political agenda permeates the government schools, pushing out real academics in favor of a constant harping on a hard-left view of “equity” and “social justice.” The truth is that real equity and social justice mean providing ALL capable students with the academic skills they need for postsecondary life. But that isn’t how administrators for the government schools see it.
    e) there are those who have tried to change this situation in math and language arts — some have tried for decades. But the government system is now so entrenched, self-interested, off-the-wall, non-accountable, non-transparent, and closed to the people — it’s nearly impossible to get through and find any reasonable person with the will and the power to effect positive change.

    This situation will not be improved by the Obama/Duncan/Gates vision for public education, encapsulated in their obscenely expensive and completely unproved Common Core initiatives, now being forced on schools all over the country.

    It’s sad, but it’s true. A few districts are run by people who care about student academics and who understand what is required. Perhaps yours is one of them. Mine is not. We gave up on the government schools in 2011, after five years of trying to persuade the local district to teach arithmetic.

    Save your children. They have one chance at a sufficient K-12 education, and most will not get that in the public system.

    Laurie H. Rogers
    Author of “Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about it”
    and the blog “Betrayed” – http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com
    wlroge@comcast.net

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  7. goodguynyComment by goodguyny
    September 15, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

    Firstly, “Grammar School”i.e., elementary school is where ALL of these basic skills are or should be taught tirelessly until the children are proficient. If it takes just teaching Math, Reading and Writing, then that is the way it should be. I remember that in Third grade, we were required to take home 5 words, assigned by the teacher, rewrite these words 50 times to memorize the spelling and then to write a complete sentence using the words in it’s correct context…meaning that we also had to use a dictionary!
    Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore.
    One of the biggest fall-outs of this lack of basic education is the lowering of standards for the workforce. My wife works for the local county Human Resources Department and because of the lower education of people and affirmative action, the new hires are basically unfit to do their jobs.
    I have heard the excuse, “Oh it’s OK, everyone spells it like that now anyway”! That is a lazy excuse for just being stupid and ignoring the facts.

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