NAEP: 27% of students write proficiently

Students in eighth and 12th grade write just as poorly on laptops as they do with paper and pencil, concludes the new National Assessment of Educational Progress writing exam. In both grades, 27 percent of students were rated proficient or better.

Students were given “two 30-minute writing prompts that asked them to persuade, explain, or convey experiences,” reports Education Week.

At the 8th grade level, for example, one exercise called “Lost Island” asked students to imagine they had arrived on a remote island and listen to an audio file that included nature sounds and lines of a journal read aloud. Students then were required to write personal stories that chronicled an experience they would have had on the island, had they been there.

To reach “advanced” on the exam, students told well-organized stories with strong details, precise word choices, and varied sentences, according to the NAEP report. Students at the “basic” level would use some detail in their stories, but organization was “loose,” sentence structure unvaried, and word choice limited.

Students who were required by teachers to use computers more often to write and edit assignments performed better on the test, NAEP reported. Most students used spell check, but only 20 percent used the cut and paste functions on the laptops.

Girls did much better than boys. The racial breakdown was . . . The usual. I’ll just note that Asian-American students, many of whom speak English as a second language, outscored whites.


About Joanne


  1. Not surprising about the Asians – the essential thing about learning is that you have to acknowledge that you have something to learn. It takes the humility to accept correction

  2. Oh, please. Asian Americans aren’t even remotely humble, as a group. They take tests very seriously. This test is all about whether or not the kid wants to try. Write about a possible experience you had on a deserted island? Who is going to take that seriously unless it matters? Only kids who can do it easily, or kids who care about tests.

  3. Only 27% proficient or better, yet American schools have made writing a top priority for over 20 years. Something is broken. I don’t think it’s feckless teachers; I think it’s a flawed conception of how you build a good writer. I think Nancie Atwell and the other geniuses who foisted writing workshop on us have sold us a bill of goods.

  4. As always Joanne takes her hints from the right wing propaganda machine. What she didn’t mention was that “proficient” is above grade level and basic is grade level. 80% of students perform at grade level.

  5. From the report itself:

    Basic. One of the three NAEP achievement levels, denoting partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade assessed

    Here is the link:

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      *Partial* mastery of the stuff that’s *fundamental* to working at grade level.

      That doesn’t sound like “grade level”.

      • Ssssshhhh. Don’t you know that facts are part of “the right wing propaganda machine”?

      • Actually it does. The tests are given to 8th graders during the school year, which means they have not finished their 8th grade school year, therefore, they have not been taught all the materials in 8th grade.

        And when you examine the criteria for the next level, proficient, you find:

        Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.

        Note the word challenging in that statement.

        • Not a convincing rebuttal. “At grade level” means just that, not “having completed grade level”. “Demonstrating competency over challenging subject matter” doesn’t mean students are advanced past their own grade’s expectations, but rather that they are in the ZPD for their current grade.

  6. Given the number of resumes I’ve had to read in my career, it’s not a stretch to say that most high school and college graduates write poorly as well.

    In my mind, proficient means that the student has a SOLID mastery and knowledge of the subject matter in question for the grade level in question.

    A rating of 27% proficient wouldn’t be acceptable in private business, would it? Why should it be acceptable in schools?


  7. Good writing depends on a lot of things:

    1. Mastery of grammar and mechanics
    2. Fluent orthography or typing skills
    3. Possession of mental templates of the different genres
    4. A big vocabulary
    5. Knowledge of the subject you’re writing about.
    6. Practice

    Unfortunately, conventional wisdom among educators holds that it’s mostly about #6. 1-5 get neglected. Few teachers –and fewer lay people –understand that this is why we still graduate so many bad writers.

    What’s the answer? Drill grammar the old-fashioned way so that kids know it like the back of their hands. Devote more time to penmanship and typing skills. And, most importantly, beef up the whole curriculum so that kids learn more facts about the world (and in the process, more vocabulary). That will give them the copious general knowledge that all good writers depend on.

  8. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Read primary source letters from young soldiers to their families in war time from the Civil War, WW 1 or 2….most of whom were not college graduates, and many not high school graduates, from small towns etc. The letters are poetic and highly literate. I read my mom’s junior high school autograph book from the late 40s and the writing of those 14 year olds, in beautiful cursive, was like Shakespeare, compared to the subliterate scrawls from the average 14 year old today, whether on paper or on computer. Pretty obvious that videogames, TV, and internet consumes more time than books for so many kids today. Ereaders are fine, but there is too much competition that involves instant gratification and takes up kids’ leisure time. The simple act of reading independently over time aids in the development of writing. It’s not rocket science to diagnose this erosion of English literacy over the years,

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      It may actually be more difficult than rocket science. Letter anthologies are not random samples; the editor picks out the best ones to print. And, of course, unwritten letters can’t be chosen because they don’t exist. No doubt some letters then were poetic and highly literate. No doubt some writing nowadays is poetic and highly literate.

      Schools now attempt to teach everyone. To keep a large number from getting failing grades, standards may indeed be lower. People, on average, may be worse. But it’s hard to prove.

      (However, I’m pretty sure that handwriting skills are way down. Like the ability to ride a horse, most people don’t need it and don’t use it.)

      • Re: handwriting. We DO need it and DO use it. I know a CEO of a high-tech start up who deplores his bad handwriting and feels terrible that he can’t write good-looking thank you notes.

        And even if it may not be as necessary as it was, does that mean we should jettison it? Isn’t there something inherently good about cultivating oneself in this manner?

        We’ve got to stop “outsourcing” all traditional human skills to machines. Sadly I fear that the very act of thinking is going to be outsourced before long.

        Long-live the human-centric civilization!

        • Apropos my last comment: just found this great comment on a NYT article called “How Machines Are Learning to Teach Humans”:

          “The more I read articles such as this the more I find myself resisting technology. The complexity of human interaction cannot be built into a machine. The most a machine is able to do is mimic human interactions, an inherently unsatisfying emotional experience. Yet, because of our adolescent fascination with bells and whistles and things that blink, whir and glow, we go gaga over short-term tech fixes when what we face are long-term problems in education and employment that will never, ever be solved with technology. We were promised 50 years ago that jobs lost because of technology would reappear as jobs that create and program technology. This has happened to a very small slice of the population. Most people thrown out of work because of machines never find work at that level again, if they even find work at all. How about this, let’s take a big chunk of the money used to develop technology and use it to train and employ people. Oh, I know, the robot-centric society many long for may have to wait a bit but people, actual people, will be better off. And maybe we’ll also be spared silly headlines like the one above this story.”

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          And even if it may not be as necessary as it was, does that mean we should jettison it? Isn’t there something inherently good about cultivating oneself in this manner?

          Yes, there is. There are millions of things that are inherently good. There are also only 24 hours in a day–and considerably less than that in a school day. We have to make choices about what to put in those hours. Lots of good things simply can’t be included.

          I think cursive is one of them. It is becoming less and less useful. By the time today’s third graders go out into the workforce, I don’t think there will be any CEOs lamenting their bad handwriting. However, I feel fairly sure that printing will still be useful and worth teaching.

      • nailsagainsttheboard says:

        I have read many, many primary source letters from PRIVATE COLLECTIONS, not merely those chosen by editors or cherry-picked for publication. I have done this extensive reading over the course of 16 years. Anecdotal evidence over years is no less valid than often sample-biased “studies”. There will always be outliers of great and terrible writiing, but the quality of the writing of the “average” student has deteriorated rapidly in the last half century. ‘Nuff said.

  9. Kids do not read, and non-readers do not make good writers.

    • nailsagainsttheboard says:

      Bada Bing–BINGO! You are spot-on. I’ve yet to meet a student who “hates” reading, yet who is simultaneously a good writer.