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Only roughly one quarter of eighth and 12th graders are proficient in writing, according to results from the National
Assessment of Educational Progress' first-ever computer-based writing assessment. The new framework represents a
move away from the traditional paper-and-pencil format that has dominated the testing scene for nearly four decades.
NAEP's exams are considered the gold standard measurement of student achievement. In May, results showed that about
a third of eighth graders who took its science exam were proficient, a statistic Gerry Wheeler, interim director of the
National Science Teachers Association, slammed as "unacceptable." Similarly, only 32 percent of students performed at
the proficient level on NAEP's math exam in 2007, ranking the U.S. 32nd out of 65 countries that were tested on the 2009
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), NAEP's international equivalent. This trend also appears to
hold true for writing, though the format may have changed.
Drawing from a sample of 24,100 eighth graders and 28,100 12th graders representing both public and private schools,
the 2011 writing assessment asked students to complete two 30-minute tasks, each of which was designed to measure one
of three communicative purposes: to persuade, explain or convey experience. The prompts were presented in multimedia
formats that included video or audio segments, newspaper articles, real-world data and other materials around which
students could formulate a response. They recorded their answers on a laptop that featured commonly used word-
processing tools such as spell check and a thesaurus.
“[Those who developed the framework] felt it was definitely time that we start assessing our students using computers,”
Dr. Mary Crovo, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a statement. “This is
becoming more the norm than the exception in our nation’s schools, and it is certainly the way that students write and
communicate in higher education and in the workplace. So we feel very strongly that this is a solid assessment for 21st
Results showed 24 percent of students at both grade levels scored at the proficient level on the writing assessment, while
54 percent of eighth graders and 52 percent of 12th graders met the benchmark for "basic." Around 20 percent of both
grades performed below basic, while only 3 percent scored at the advanced level.
Among eighth graders, Asians outperformed other racial/ethnic groups, averaging a score of 165 on a 300-point scale. A
mean of 150 was set for both grades. At the 12th-grade level, however, white students, Asian students and students of two
or more races performed comparably. In both grades, African American and Hispanic students had lower average scores
than the other races.
In addition to assessing students’ writing ability, the new computer-based format of the exam allowed test administrators
to collect extensive information on 24 separate student “actions,” including keystrokes, backspacing, deletions and their
use of spell-checking programs. Results found that at both grade levels, students who used the backspace key and
thesaurus tool more frequently scored higher than those who did not routinely engage in these practices. Furthermore,
English language learners were less likely to use the thesaurus tool than non-English language learners.
Dr. Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in a press call that the standards of
proficiency were tailored to reflect the computer-based nature of the assessment, and that students’ writing was evaluated
holistically -- taking into account development of ideas, organization and language facility and conventions.
Thus, while the spell check tool might have provided students with an advantage they did not have when taking the old
paper-and-pencil tests, spelling was only evaluated under the category of “use of conventions,” and to the degree that it
might interfere with what the student was saying.
“The raters who are scoring the students’ results were asked to consider these as first drafts. They don’t expect to see a
polished final report; they’re expected to see first-draft quality,” Buckley said, later pointing out that the word processor
tool is not going to result in significantly better writing if the student is not already fluent in expressing his or her ideas.
While the new computerized framework makes it difficult to directly compare results to the past, Buckley acknowledged,
“there was not a lot of difference in levels of proficiency” from 2007, when the most immediate prior writing assessment
On the 2007 pencil-and-paper tests, 35 percent of eighth graders and 25 percent of 12th graders scored at or above
proficient -- on par with 2011’s results, at least for 12th grade.
Additionally, female students in both grades scored higher than their male counterparts on the 2011 writing assessment --
a pattern that is consistent with previous results, according to Buckley.
Crovo, the deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, said that the NAEP hopes to add fourth
graders to the sample in the near future.
Said Crovo, “We’re hopeful this new 2011 computer-based assessment can serve as a baseline for looking at trends over
CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece incorrectly identified Gerry Wheeler. We regret the error.
xplore potential strategies.
Students can’t write.
Students lack critical background skills.
Writing is a complex task involving many component skills, some of which students may lack completely, some of which they may
have only partially mastered. These skills involve, among other things:
Writing skills, including:
writing mechanics: grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc.
planning a writing strategy
communicating ideas clearly and concisely
constructing a reasoned, demonstrable argument
effectively marshaling evidence and using sources appropriately
organizing ideas effectively
When students lack skills in these areas, their writing may be unsatisfactory in multiple ways—from poor grammar and syntax to
unclear organization to weak reasoning and arguments. Complicating matters is that students often lack the meta-cognitive skills to
recognize the areas in which their prior knowledge and skills are insufficient—and thus which skills they need to work to improve.
Moreover, students may have learned bad habits in high school that they need to un-learn. For example, some students were taught
in high school to avoid the first person in formal writing, and thus may use awkward grammatical constructions to avoid it.
A key challenge in helping students learn basic writing skills is doing so without overwhelming the students or overburdening yourself.
Effective strategies thus involve (a) prioritizing which skills you value, (b) communicating those priorities (and your specific
expectations) to students, and (c) giving students opportunities to practice and receive feedback.
Use performance rubrics to break down the skills involved in writing.
Use a diagnostic pre-assessment to identify common writing problems.
“Scaffold” writing assignments.
Create multiple practice opportunities.
Use performance rubrics to break down the skills involved in writing.
Writing isn’t a single task; rather it involves many component skills(e.g. synthesizing information, articulating arguments, crafting
sentences, engaging an audience). Furthermore, the nature of writing depends heavily on both the specific assignment (i.e., the
purpose of the writing) and the conventions of particular disciplines. Developing clear grading criteria can help students learn to
recognize the component tasks involved in particular kinds of writing and identify what they need to work on. Performance rubricshelp
to demystify the component tasks of writing.
Developing good performance rubrics is not easy. It requires the instructor to be extremely clear in articulating the objectives of the
assignment as well as his/her own values vis-à-vis writing. While creating a high-quality rubric can involve an initial investment of
time, instructors who have developed good rubrics generally find that they expedite the grading process and provide students with
feedback that translates into better performance.
Use a diagnostic pre-assessment to identify common writing problems.
Give your class an un-graded writing assignment early in the semester and use it to diagnose areas of weakness in student writing. A
quick read-through of student writing should illuminate common writing problems (e.g., weak arguments, poor use of evidence,
missing topic sentences, etc.). If the problems cluster in a few clearly defined areas, you might choose to address them in class.
If the problems are not ones you can or wish to address in class, you can point them out to students and/or direct students to
appropriate resources, for example, Academic Development, theIntercultural Communication Center, or an on-line writing tutor.
“Scaffold” writing assignments.
Use assignments that break reading, analysis, and writing into component parts and give students practice developing mastery in
each area, building gradually towards more complex, comprehensive writing tasks. For example, you might first ask students to
summarize, in writing, the central argument of a reading and three pieces of evidence the author used to support it. At a second
stage, you might ask students to write a critique of the argument in light of that evidence and alternative evidence. At a third stage,
you might ask students to write an essay comparing two readings in terms of how compellingly the authors made their cases.
Create multiple practice opportunities.
Learning to write well requires considerable practice. However, many faculty members are—understandably—reluctant to assign a lot
of writing because of the grading burden it imposes. Yet giving students more writing opportunities need not always entail more work
for you. Here are some options to consider:
Have students read one another’s work and provide feedback to their peers in the form of “reader responses.” This not only relieves
you of some of the grading burden, it provides students with the opportunity to develop editing and evaluation skills that they can
apply to improve their own writing. Peer feedback is most effective when you give students specific instructions about what to look for
and comment on. You can ask students to use the same performance rubric you use, or give them a set of questions to address, such
as: Was the writing style engaging? Is there a clearly articulated argument? Is there good correspondence between argument and
evidence? Are the ideas expressed clearly and unambiguously? What you ask students to focus on in a peer review, of course,
depends on your discipline and your goals for the particular assignment.
Use “minimal grading,” or extremely targeted feedback for some assignments. For example, you might make it clear to students that
on one assignment they will only receive feedback on the strength of their argument and evidence but not grammar and spelling.
Alternatively, you might choose to focus on clarity, underlining clear or effective passages in blue and unclear or problematic passages
in green, and limiting your feedback to that single dimension of writing. This not only makes the job of grading easier, it helps
students focus on one aspect of their writing at a time. Once again, what you choose to emphasize in grading will depend on your
learning objectives for particular assignments.
Assign more writing tasks of shorter length or smaller scope rather than fewer tasks of great length or large scope. This way, students
get more opportunity to practice basic skills and can refine their approach from assignment to assignment based on feedback they
Report: U.S. students lack writing skills
Nearly three quarters of American students who took the first-ever computer-based national writing exam did
not communicate effectively, even when allowed to use spell check, a thesaurus and other word-processing
tools, according to a federal report released Friday.
Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress: 2011 Writing exam show that few students
can write successfully in both academic and workplace settings, educators said.
The program is part of a series of national tests in math, science, reading and other subjects known as "The
Nation's Report Card." It tested 24,100 eighth-graders in 950 schools and 28,100 12th-graders in 1,220
schools. So far, only national data has been released; names of participating public and private schools
have not been made public.
The first-of-its-kind writing exam provided students with information via short video or audio segments,
newspaper articles, data from real-world settings and other materials on which to base their writing.
Students were measured on their ability to: persuade or change the reader's point of view; explain or expand
the reader's understanding; and convey experience or communicate individual experiences to others.
Officials said they worked to test a sample of students that's representative of the overall population.
Results show that 27 percent of eight-graders and the same rate of 12th
-graders scored "proficient or
advanced," meaning they developed explanations with well-chosen details to enhance meaning, presented a
clear progression of ideas, chose precise words and crafted well-controlled sentences.
Students could score up to 300 points, with results scaled so 150 would represent an average score. To be
scored proficient, students had to achieve at least 173.
An additional 54 percent of eighth-graders and 52 percent of 12th
-graders scored "basic," writing
explanations using some details that did not enhance the clarity or progression of ideas, organizing thoughts
loosely and relying on relatively simply sentence structure.
Students had to achieve a score of at least 112 to be marked basic
Twenty percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th
-graders scored "below basic," meaning they lacked
basic skills and struggled to compose clear thoughts in writing. These students scored 111 or lower.
Students were allowed to use the full features of word-processing programs. One writing task asked
students to explain to a college admissions committee why they value a specific type of technology.
Students watched a short video with animations and statistics about technology use. Then, they were asked
to write an explanation of the value of technology.
Previously, students taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test had to use pencil
and paper. Changes in technology and the need to write across electronic formats prompted the switch to
"Writing is fundamental to effective communication, especially in an era in which email and other word-
processed documents are the norm rather than the exception," said David Driscoll, chairman of NAEP's
In the 2007 writing exam, 33 percent of students nationally scored proficient or advanced, but officials
cautioned against comparisons because the tests are significantly different.
Each year, about a third of the nation's high school graduates ascend directly to four-year colleges and
universities. Driscoll said the writing test results affirm that schools need to get more students ready for
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riting in the Major
Writing in the Major is a programmatic and developmental approach to advancing writing and learning.
Since writing, like other complex skills, develops over a long period of time, it is important to create a
program that extends across the entire undergraduate experience. Department-based programs give
special attention to students' capacities in formal writing andwriting-to-learn. By acting collectively--with
shared goals, expectations, criteria, and standards--instructors can have a potent, cumulative effect on
students' writing and learning.
Students who complete the requirements for a major with an approved writing-in-the-major program also
satisfy the university Writing Emphasis requirement. Departments work through a collaborative,
developmental process before submitting an official proposal form.
A writing-in-the-major program has six essential features:
1. Clearly defined goals, outcomes and standards for student writing.
Coherent goals, outcomes, and standards--defined by the department--are extremely important. They
provide students with a model of the competence they are expected to develop. Imagine trying to learn a
complex skill without a sense of what accomplished performance looks like--learning to play the violin,
say, without ever having heard a skilled performer. Or imagine trying to develop a complex skill when the
performance standards change continually. Both of these conditions are what students typically
experience as instructors use widely different standards. (See Why Learning to Write Well in College is
Difficult.) The lack of consistent performance standards makes it very difficult to develop a strong sense of
good writing and promotes the belief that good writing is simply a matter of the individual instructor's
Publish goals, criteria, and standards for student writing in "handbooks" and/or on a web site.
Make available examples of student writing. Preferably, these should be annotated to highlight key features
of written work.
Expose students to examples of good--and poor--published work, again annotating or pointing out what
effective and what is not. In classes, call attention to how writing of students or professionals meets
departmental criteria and standards.
2. A shared evaluation framework.
Faculty use a shared evaluation system for assessing the quality of students' formal writing based on
department-wide criteria. This does not mean that every instructor must use this framework for every
piece of student writing. It does mean that faculty agree to use some shared criteria to evaluate student
work. A consistent evaluation system helps students internalize the criteria for effective performance. If
students experience quite different evaluative criteria as they go from one class to the next, they quite
rightly develop the idea that those criteria are a matter of the instructors' taste. Rather than developing a
strong sense of good writing, students focus on figuring out what the instructor wants-which tends to be
different from one class to the next. This lack of consistency on the part of faculty can be a major reason
for students' failure to show cumulative progress in their development as writers as well as a reason for
their failure to be reflective and skilled at self-assessment.
Instructors agree to use a shared set of criteria and standards to evaluate student writing.
Instructors develop some common language and nomenclature for evaluating student writing.
Instructors use common evaluation rubrics which incorporate the departmental criteria and standards, and
modify the rubrics to suit different writing assignments.
3. Effective writing processes throughout the major.
Formal writing skill develops best when students engage in a recursive process of writing drafts, revising,
and editing. Students need feedback and guidance throughout the process in the form of clear
expectations, models of acceptable work, help in shaping their subject and purpose, feedback on
approaches, and so on. A writing-in-the-major program structures effective writing processes which
includes well-informed feedback and guidance.
The most labor intensive part of teaching writing is providing effective feedback and guidance. However, it
is unfeasible and probably ineffective to respond in detail to all student writing. This project departs from
the idea that the only way students can learn to write well is by having each instructor labor over
students' every written word. The challenge is to determine when and how to give feedback and guidance,
selecting optimum "teaching moments." For example, since writing-to-learn activities focus on the
development of ideas, you wouldn't choose to give feedback on the mechanical aspects writing. Instead,
you would give feedback about their understanding-for that, after all, was the point of the assignment. Or,
in the case of formal writing assignments, you would give feedback at pivotal points in the development of
the assignment when students can still make revisions, rather than after the assignment is completed.
Students analyze and evaluate their own and their fellow students' written work according to departmental
criteria and standards.
Instructors provide clear criteria and standards for writing assignments linked to departmental criteria and
Instructors give feedback strategically.
Students learn to revise their work in response to feedback and guidance.
4. Integration of writing-to-learn throughout the major.
Faculty coordinate the use of writing-to-learn strategies throughout the major (i.e., strategies intended to
help students learn and understand the subject matter of the discipline). The writing-to-learn component
of the project is an opportunity for faculty to cultivate students' deep understanding of important
disciplinary knowledge. Recognizing that students rarely achieve the depth of understanding we want, this
project invites instructors to approach the problem of student understanding programmatically, by
identifying the "big ideas" all students should understand and by using writing as one of the tools to help
students achieve that understanding.
Instructors identify disciplinary knowledge that all students are expected to understand well.
Instructors use writing-to-learn activities to monitor the development of students' understanding in the
Instructors use writing-to-learn to address persistent student learning problems in the major.
5. Development of mindful writers.
Faculty help students develop their abilities to evaluate their own learning and writing. This is an explicit
effort to promote students' effective self-assessment and increasing independence as learners and writers.
A good writing-in-the-major program produces students who not only write well, but who are mindful of
how to improve their own skills. An important goal of the project is to cultivate students' capacities for
self-assessment and independent work. As students progress through the major, they should internalize
the criteria and standards for writing in the program and become better able to judge the qualities of their
Students analyze and evaluate their own work according to departmental criteria and standards.
The department creates "self assessment standards" that clarify progressively more sophisticated self
6. A strategy to improve the writing-in-the-major program.
Faculty collectively assess student learning and writing and use the results to make decisions about how
to improve teaching and student progress in the program. Assessment is essential for the long-term
development and improvement of the program and its goals. By using shared criteria to evaluate student
writing, teams will be able to develop a way to collectively analyze student progress and make changes in
the program to better meet its goals. There is an opportunity in this project to use assessment of student
writing as part of the department's assessment of student learning outcomes. We encourage faculty teams
to think about how to accomplish both types of assessment through a single process.
The department evaluates writing developmentally at several points in the students' program (e.g., entering,
sophomore year, junior, exit)
Students learn about their progress from the assessment process.