The results of a national writing test released Friday show that only a quarter of eighth- and 12th-grade students have solid writing skills, a statistic that Lowcountry school officials say they have already taken steps to remedy.
Students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, writing test last year did so for the first time on a computer, allowing them to use spell-check and other word-processing tools, such as a thesaurus.
Even with those advantages, only 24 percent of students at each grade level were able to write essays that were well-developed, organized and had proper language and grammar. Three percent scored as advanced. The remainder showed just partial mastery of these skills.
“Writing is definitely an important focus right now,” said Betsy Reidenbach, director of literacy-based learning for the Charleston County School District. “They need a whole lot more practice in informational writing and persuasive writing.”
Driving the effort locally is South Carolina’s adoption in 2010 of Common Core State Standards, which stress real-world knowledge that’s helpful in potential careers. The initiative was developed by a group of parents and education experts and distributed for individual states to take up.
Reidenbach said Charleston students from kindergartners to eight-graders are given a writing assessment that is sent home with quarterly report cards. But a move is afoot to develop a more rigorous standard to assess writing at all grade levels.
Students in kindergarten through fifth grade participate in daily writing workshops in which they get feedback from teachers. A strong focus in all grades, though, is persuasive writing.
That can begin as early as kindergarten, when students are instructed, for example, to explain why chocolate ice cream is the best flavor.
“That gets them ready for the next level or for college,” Reidenbach said. “Everyone will need to persuade someone that you paid this bill or that you gave them information.”
Writing is a skill taught across Dorchester County’s curriculum, from English to science, District 2 spokeswoman Pat Raynor said. A statewide test, which is a separate metric from the federally funded NAEP exam, categorized 43.3 percent of that district’s fifth- through eighth-grade students as having “exemplary” writing skills, the highest score of all tri-county districts.
But for the first time this school year, middle-school students are taking stand-alone writing classes.
“Even if your profession is math, you still have to be able to communicate,” Raynor said. “That has been the approach our teachers have always used.”
The Berkeley County School District administers diagnostic exams three times a year in grades one-12. Scored by teachers, the testing is used to drive future instruction.
District spokeswoman Susan Haire said sixth- to 12th-graders will work on mastering argument structure in their writing during this school year. The end goal: getting them ready for college and careers.
She added that Berkeley is the only district in South Carolina to host an internal writing conference in the fall and spring. She said this year’s focus is on “project-driven writing that infuses science, social studies and math into problem-solving activities that culminate in writing.”
Most writing in local schools is done with pencil and paper, officials said.
But students who took the NAEP writing exam in 2011 had an advantage that previous test takers did not: a computer with spell-check. With changes in technology and the need to write across electronic formats, the decision was made to switch to computers.
Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the Nation’s Report Card tests, said students use technology on a daily basis.
“It’s as if years ago we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser,” she said.
But because this was the first version of the computerized test, the board cautioned against comparing the results with previous exams. In 2007, 33 percent of eighth-grade students scored at the proficient level, which represents solid writing skills, as did 24 percent at grade 12.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.