Press Release

WASHINGTON (April 3, 2008) — Results from the 2007 NAEP writing assessment for grades 8 and 12, released today by the U.S. Department of Education, show some national improvements at both grade levels, particularly among our lowest-performing students. It appears that writing achievement improved for most students across racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines.

But while some states narrowed gaps between minority and white students and between low-income and more affluent students, the nation’s overall gap closing progress continues to be disappointing. That lack of progress tempers our reaction to these findings. It’s reason to focus on identifying what works to boost writing skills and ensure that it’s happening in the schools that are serving poor and minority young people.

Strong writing ability equips students with the communication and thinking skills required for college, the workplace and active citizenship. But too many of our young adults are ineffective writers. According to ACT, about one-third of all U.S. high school graduates are not prepared for college-level English composition class work. And that same lack of preparation is evident in the workplace – more than 70 percent of human resources professionals report that entry-level high school graduates are deficient in basic writing skills, and over 80 percent have difficulty writing clear memos, letters and reports.

So it’s heartening to see that the average achievement among 12th graders in writing has improved. However, the majority of all students still perform at the Basic level, and gaps between white students and their Latino and African-American peers have not budged.

“Education and business leaders have been sounding the alarm that our high schools are not preparing students well enough for the challenges of college and careers. The gains in 12th-grade writing may be an early sign that educators are responding to that alarm,” said Kati Haycock, President of The Education Trust.

At eighth grade, the average score for the nation overall as well as for all subgroups increased. In addition, every subgroup posted achievement-level growth – with more students in each group moving up from below Basic to Basic and from Basic to Proficient.

Among the standouts at the state level in eighth-grade writing:

  • In 2007, New Jersey had the highest scale score overall and for African-American, Latino and low-income students. However, their African-American-White, Latino-White and poor-non-poor achievement gaps remained among the largest in the U.S.
  • Since 1998, scores increased by at least 15 points for:
    • Latinos in Massachusetts, New York, Washington and Wyoming;
    • African-American students in Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri and Washington;
    • and low-income students in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts and Washington.
  • Nine states – Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina and Washington – narrowed their gaps and recorded steady growth among each of their student subgroups since 1998.

“While the increases are good, they are nowhere near good enough. We need to focus on accelerating those gains – especially for low-income and minority students,” said Haycock. “In a world that gets smaller, more competitive and more diverse every day, Basic just doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t get kids where they need to go, and it doesn’t get our country where we need go. We’ve got to identify the success stories, study them and replicate what works if we hope to get our kids and our nation on the path to greater success.”

Like the results from the 2007 NAEP math assessment, Arkansas’ improvement on the 2007 NAEP writing assessment was among the biggest in the nation. Since 1998, they slashed by nearly one-half the number of African-American and low-income eighth graders that rated below Basic.

In recent years, the state has focused on ratcheting up expectations across the board – not just in writing – by emphasizing instruction across subject areas and linking assessments and instruction to state standards. State targets are set with high expectations and standards are reviewed regularly to ensure appropriate rigor, beginning as early as kindergarten. And as the expectations bar is raised in Arkansas, so too are the minimum scores required for proficiency on the state’s annual assessments. The result: All groups of students are showing increases in achievement, and gaps are narrowing on both state and NAEP exams.

“States like Arkansas are embracing the challenge, but they know that there is still a lot more work that must be done to not just narrow, but eliminate the gaps that have plagued our schools for generations. But by implementing a formula of what we know works for all kids – rich curriculum; high standards; strong, focused instruction; and rigorous assessments – they are proving that change is possible when educators and policymakers work together aggressively to make sure that all students are well prepared for the future, especially the ones who are the farthest behind.”