Students Struggle in Writing, Especially on Tasks Relevant to College and Career

Share this

Surveys have long shown that college professors, employers, and graduates themselves feel that high schools are graduating students who lack the writing skills necessary to succeed in college and the workplace. Recent results from the 2011 National Assessment of Education Progress corroborate these opinions, showing that far too many American middle and high school students have insufficient writing skills. And while the results are low for all students, they’re especially troubling for students of color and low-income students.

Overall, only about 1 in 4 eighth-graders and 1 in 4 12th-graders were proficient or advanced in writing. Performance was far lower among low-income students and students of color. For example, 32 percent of low-income eighth graders performed at the “below basic” level — roughly three times the rate for higher income students, of whom only 11 percent performed at the below basic level. Among high school seniors, only eight percent of African-American students and 11 percent of Latino students were proficient in writing, compared to 32 percent of their white peers.

The performance of American Indian and Alaska Native students represents a divergence from this pattern. Although they still lag behind their white peers, the 13-point gap between American Indian/Alaska Native and white eighth-graders was far narrower than the black-white and Latino-white gaps. American Indian/Alaska Native students were also about twice as likely to be proficient in writing as their black and Latino counterparts in both eighth and 12th grades. This pattern is especially noteworthy because on other NAEP assessments, including the reading assessments, American Indian students perform at levels very similar to African-American and Latino students. These results raise important questions about what’s working for American Indian students and whether and how those practices can be replicated for other students.

According to Susan Pimentel, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board and a key contributor to the Common Core State Standards, a special analysis of NAEP results not released to the public found that students performed better on narrative tasks than on persuasive or explanatory tasks. Yet the latter tasks are the kinds most relevant after high school. They also are the kinds of tasks emphasized in college- and career-ready standards like the Common Core. As schools continue to implement those new standards, it will be especially critical to ensure that teachers have the supports and training they need to help students develop strong explanatory and persuasive writing skills.

- Allison Horowitz