Saturday, August 29, 2009

Has student writing ability declined over time?

Some of our recent posts have generated considerable commentary, and much of it has been quite good. Great!

For instance, my brief discussion (School of Fish) of Stanley Fish’s latest NYT column inspired scores of remarks.

One of the issues that has arisen is whether students’ writing abilities are worse today than they once were. Many of us who write for or to DtB are under the impression that student writing ability has definitely gone in decline in recent decades. At least one Dissent reader, however, took issue with that perspective and has reminded us that always elders have bemoaned the alleged decline of young people’s abilities and knowledge.

Well, you know me. “Let’s get empirical” is one of my mottos. So what’s the relevant data (re writing ability)? Who's got the info we need?

I suppose an obvious place to start is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is sometimes referred to as "the nation's report card." According to Wikipedia, the NAEP "is a periodic assessment of student progress conducted in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education."

I know. No doubt there exists controversy about the quality of the NAEP’s data or tests. But I’m going to proceed on the assumption that NAEP’s data and findings are more or less sound. We can return to the issue of quality later, if necessary.

Here’s what those folks have to say:

The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2007:

This report presents the results of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) writing assessment. … To measure their writing skills, the assessment engaged students in narrative, informative, and persuasive writing tasks. NAEP presents the writing results as scale scores and achievement-level percentages. … The 2007 national results are compared with results from the 2002 and 1998 assessments. At grades 8 and 12, average writing scores and the percentages of students performing at or above Basic were higher than in both previous assessments. … Compared with 2002, average writing scores for eighth-graders increased in 19 states and the Department of Defense schools, and scores decreased in one state. Compared with 1998, scores increased in 28 states and the Department of Defense Schools, and no states showed a decrease….

The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2007—Executive Summary:

The average writing score [at grade 12, in 2007] was 5 points higher than in 2002 and 3 points higher than in 1998. ¶ The percentage of students performing at or above the Basic level increased from 74 percent in 2002 to 82 percent and was also higher than in 1998. ¶ The percentage of students performing at or above the Proficient level was higher than in 1998 but showed no significant change since 2002.

State (California) snapshot report 2007 (Nation’s report card: writing):

In 2007, the average scale score for eighth-grade students in California was 148. This was not significantly different from their average score in 2002 (144) and was higher than their average score in 1998 (141).

• California's average score (148) in 2007 was lower than that of the nation's public schools (154).

• Of the 45 states and one other jurisdiction that participated in the 2007 eighth-grade assessment, students' average scale score in California was higher than those in 4 jurisdictions, not significantly different from those in 6 jurisdictions, and lower than those in 35 jurisdictions.

• The percentage of students in California who performed at or above the NAEP Proficient level was 25 percent in 2007. This percentage was not significantly different from that in 2002 (23 percent) and was greater than that in 1998 (20 percent).

• The percentage of students in California who performed at or above the NAEP Basic level was 83 percent in 2007. This percentage was greater than that in 2002 (78 percent) and was greater than that in 1998 (76 percent).

It seems to me that that above information provides an impressive prima facie case that the Teeth-Gnashers (such as yours truly) are mistaken.

Naturally, it may still be true that students in a particular sector of higher ed (e.g., community colleges) are worse. For instance, despite the picture painted above, it may also be true that great middle of high school graduates are worse than they used to be and the well-performing outliers (those who qualify to enroll in the better institutions) are much better than they used to be.

Seems unlikely though. (See part IIof this post.)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Well, you know me. “Let’s get empirical” is one of my mottos. So what’s the relevant data (re writing ability)? Who's got the info we need?" - Roy Bauer

That's why I love this blog!It's so much more than just opinions.
ES

Roy Bauer said...

Gosh, thanks, ES. I wrote this post in haste, and I now realize that I was reading "1998" and somehow thinking "1970," or, anyway, way back. That's hard to explain, but there it is. I'm not sure the improvement between 1998 and 2007 is enough to warrant the conclusion that the Teeth Gnashers are mistaken about the seeming downward trend in writing ability between, say, 1970 and 2007. I gather that the NAEP has looked at long-term trends, but not for writing, only for math and reading. But I'll see what I can dig up.

Wade said...

Like you mention in your comment, Roy, going back eleven years is hardly conclusive. I would suspect that you are right in stating that different subsets of the population are getting better at writing while other subsets are getting worse. It would be interesting to see the actual scores as well as standard deviations. If the standard deviations are getting larger it might indicate that yes we are reaching some subsets well, but other subsets are being left by the wayside.

The prevaricator in chief

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