WASHINGTON – Only 1 percent of Maryland students write at an “advanced” level and 77 percent had skills that were basic or worse, according to a national report card on students’ writing abilities.
The Maryland numbers almost exactly mirrored nationwide results on the “National Assessment of Educational Progress 1998 Writing Report Card” released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education.
“It is clear from the report that many students are able to write at a basic, minimally effective level, but far too few can produce strong, coherent prose,” said Marilyn Whirry, member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversaw scoring of the test.
In Maryland, 60 percent of eighth graders had “basic” writing skills and 17 percent fell below that level, according to the test. Twenty-two percent in the state scored at the proficient level.
Nationally, 59 percent scored at the basic level, 17 percent scored below basic and 23 percent were rated at the proficient level. As in Maryland, only 1 percent nationwide scored at the advanced level.
Despite the poor results in the initial report, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley said Tuesday that standards set for the exam are high and students’ writing ability is improving.
“The vast majority of our young people are at the basic level and many of them are close to moving up one notch to the proficient level. We seem to be heading in the right direction,” Riley said.
Fourth, eighth and 12th-grade students across the country were tested on narrative, informative and persuasive writing and then their skills were rated below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.
The exam showed a large gap in writing ability between boys and girls. Only 13 percent of boys in Maryland and 15 percent nationally were proficient or better, compared to 33 percent of girls in Maryland and 34 percent nationally.
Maryland school officials attributed the state’s showing to the relatively high number of low-income students in the state.
“The most singular significant impact on test scores seems to be poverty,” said Ronald Peiffer, assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach.
Peiffer noted that about 28 percent of students in Maryland are eligible for the Free/Reduced Price School Lunch Program. States that did better on the exam tended to have a smaller percentage of low-income students available for that program, he said.
Among low-income students, only 10 percent nationally were rated proficient or better on the exam — only 6 percent in Maryland. By comparison, about one in three students who were not in the school lunch program were rated at the proficient level or above, both nationally and in Maryland.
But Peiffer said the number of low-income students in Maryland does not completely excuse the state’s performance. Improvements do need to be made and the state is taking steps to do that, he said.
“We feel that we need to be doing better. We emphasize writing in the MSPAP (Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program) tests and we have done a lot on reading the past couple of years,” Peiffer said.
Last year, the state formed a reading task force to help improve students’ reading abilities, Peiffer said, and teachers are also receiving more training on how to help students excel in reading.
“Improvement in reading should reflect in writing as well,” Peiffer said.