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Arizona's youth lag in national writing test
July 11, 2003

WASHINGTON - From essays to arguments, the writing of America's young students is getting better - but Arizona's pupils are struggling compared to most of their peers.

Nationwide, students in the fourth and eighth grades have made significant strides since 1998 in handling challenging writing assignments, according to 2002 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

However, Arizona ranked 41st lowest out of 43 states reporting 2002 scores on the percentage of fourth-graders who write proficiently.

Fifteen percent of Arizona fourth-graders are considered proficient writers, compared to 49 percent in the top-ranking state, Connecticut. Mississippi was lowest at 13 percent.

And at the eighth-grade level, 20 percent of Arizona students are proficient, 34th lowest out of 42 states using the test. Connecticut was again highest, at 45 percent, and Mississippi lowest, at 13 percent.

Although the nation's overall writing trend is positive, the improvements must be considered in context. Most students - about eight in 10 - wrote at a basic level or better, which means they could get their point across with at least some effectiveness and minimal mistakes.

But more than two-thirds of all students could not provide coherent answers with clear language, supporting details, accurate punctuation and creative thinking. Only writing of that quality was deemed "proficient," the mark considered the national standard for students.

"The writing should be insightful, not just smooth," said Marilyn Whirry, a member of the test's governing board and a former national teacher of the year. "The ability to write clear English prose is more than an incidental tool. It is a crucial means to organize our ideas, to find out what we are thinking, and to connect with those we are trying to reach."

The national writing test, given to a representative sample of students, is run by the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education Department. It shows where students stand compared to where they should be - and whether they're making gains.

It is the latter measure - change since the 1998 test - that offers the best news.

In fourth grade, 28 percent of students reached at least the proficient mark, up from 23 percent. In eighth grade, 31 percent of students achieved at that level, up from 27 percent. The average test scores increased for whites, blacks and Hispanics.

But in the improving areas, a closer look reveals some gaps. In eighth grade, for example, scores were stagnant for hard-to-reach students who rank well below top performers.

"That tells us where we need to do our work," said Susan Sclafani, a counselor to Education Secretary Rod Paige.

The average test score for high-school seniors essentially held flat, but the proportion of 12th-graders who reached at least the basic level dropped from 78 percent to 74 percent. That means about a quarter of seniors, within a 25-minute time limit, could not provide an organized answer that showed they understood their task and their audience.

The sophistication of the questions grew by grade, as did the expectations of graders, who watched for content, organization, sentence structure, grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Write about this:
* Sample questions used to test the writing skills of students in grades four, eight and 12:

Describe what lunchtime is like for you on a school day. Be sure to tell about your lunchtime so that someone who has never had lunch with you on a school day can understand where you have lunch and what lunchtime is like.

If you were told that you could save just one book for future generations, which book would you choose?

Write an essay in which you discuss which book you would choose to save for future generations and what it is about the book that makes it important to save. Be sure to discuss in detail why the book is important to you and why it would be important to future generations.

Imagine that you will participate in a "tall-tale writing contest" at your school. Write your own tall tale. You can write about yourself, someone you know, or someone you imagine. Be sure to give your main character whatever superhuman abilities are necessary to save the day.