Three-quarters of the nation's schoolchildren are unable to compose a well-organized, coherent essay, a skill frequently demanded in the modern workplace, according to results of a federally sponsored writing test released yesterday.
Most students tested last year managed to get across their main, simple points in the short essays they were asked to write, but their writing did not have the sophistication to meet the standard for proficiency set by a national board of educators, state officials and business leaders.
The test results from a representative sample of 60,000 students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades provided another source of concern about the condition of the nation's schools and follows similar results showing students falling short of new academic standards in the states.
"The average, or typical, American student is not a proficient writer. Instead, students show only partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for a solid academic performance in writing," said Gary W. Phillips, acting commissioner of education statistics.
The testing found that girls wrote better than boys in each grade, in keeping with the outcome of earlier, less demanding versions of the test. The gender gap in writing skill was large: Twice as many girls reached or exceeded the standard for proficient writing.
There was also a gap in the performance of different racial and ethnic groups, with white and Asian students writing better than African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. That gap was narrower in schools on military bases, where African American and Hispanic students scored higher than their counterparts elsewhere. Analysts suggested minority students benefited from an equitable distribution of resources at the Defense Department schools and the financial security of military families.
For the first time, it was possible to make comparisons of writing skill in the states. Of 35 states where 100,000 additional eighth-graders were tested, Connecticut led the nation, followed by Massachusetts, Maine and Texas. Virginia was one of eight states above the national average, while Maryland fell slightly below average. The District had the lowest score of any jurisdiction except the Virgin Islands.
Mark Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, suggested that Virginia did well in writing because a large percentage of the state's students attend solid suburban schools in Northern Virginia, and state residents have above-average income, an advantage shared by many high scorers.
Top scorer Connecticut has the highest per capita income in the nation and has tested students in four grades in writing since 1985. "What you test is what you get," said Marilyn Whirry, a high school English teacher in California.
Musick and Whirry are members of the board that governs the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated series of tests that provides the best measure of student achievement in the country. Last year's writing test had a higher standard than one administered in 1992, making comparisons between them unreliable, testing officials warned.
Students had 25 minutes to compose one of three different types of essays--narrative, informative persuasive. The expected standard of proficiency was reached by 22 percent of fourth-graders, 26 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of high school seniors.
In an example of proficient writing by a senior, a girl told an imaginative story about falling in love and marrying another Italian immigrant who died after the birth of their four children. "As I gaze out my window, I turn look at my hand still wearing that same gold ring from so many years ago. I smile because I know I don't need to bring him back. . . . I never really lost him," the girl concluded the five-paragraph essay.
The National Center of Education Statistics said her essay was well-organized "and shows good command of stylistic elements and control of language."
Whirry said seniors "had the most trouble with persuasive writing . . . a serious problem because persuading a reader to take a course of action or bring about a certain change is enormously important, not just to get ahead on the job, but also to make sound decisions in our democratic society."
Most students demonstrated basic writing skills--able to make simple points but not put together sophisticated sentences. Writing at this level were 61 percent of fourth-graders, 57 percent of eighth-graders and 56 percent of seniors.
Incomprehensible essays were produced by 16 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders and 22 percent of seniors.
In each grade, 1 percent of the students were writing at the highest level.
In the Test
Sample questions used by the National Assessment Governing Board to test the writing skills of students in various grades.
* We all have favorite objects that we care about and would not want to give up.
Think of one object that is important or valuable to you. For example, it could be a book, a piece of clothing, a game, or any object you care about.
Write about your favorite object. Be sure to describe the object and explain why it is valuable or important to you.
* Imagine this situation!
A noise outside awakens you one night. You look out the window and see a spaceship. The door of the spaceship opens, and out walks a space creature. What does the creature look like? What does the creature do? What do you do?
Write a story about what happens next.
* Your school is sponsoring a voter registration drive for 18-year-old high school students. You and three of your friends are talking about the project. Your friends say the following.
Friend 1: "I'm working on the young voters' registration drive. Are you going to come to it and register? You're all 18, so you can do it. We're trying to help increase the number of young people who vote and it shouldn't be too hard -- I read that he percentage of 18-to-20-year-olds who vote increased in recent years. We want that percentage to keep going up."
Friend 2: "I'll be there. People should vote as soon as they turn 18. It's one of the responsibilities of living in a democracy."
Friend 3: "I don't know if people should even bother to register. One vote in an elections isn't going to change anything."
Do you agree with friend 2 or 3? Write a response to your friends in which you explain whether you will or will not register to vote. Be sure to explain why and support your position with examples from your reading or experience. Try to convince the friend with whom you disagree that your position is the right one.
Percentages of public school eighth-graders in 35 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands who scored at the proficient level or above in writing tests by the National Assessment Governing Board:
Percentage, by state
NOTE: Data for states not listed were not available.