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It All Starts Here: Fixing Our National Writing Crisis From the Foundation

By Steve Graham, Ed.D.

This white paper has been reposted with permission from its publisher, Saperstein Associates.

Introduction: A National Writing Crisis?

What’s wrong with our young writers? The news media report that many of our students are not able to write at even the most basic level required for participation in today’s economy. The class of 2012 attained an average score of 488 on the writing portion of the SAT, the lowest score since the assessment was introduced in 2006. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tells a similar story: In 2011, only 27% of 8th and 12th grade students scored at or above proficient on the writing portion of the NAEP. In the same assessment, 20% of 8th graders and 21% of 12th graders scored “below basic,” meaning they are unable to perform at even the minimum standard for their grade level.

These scores tell us that many of our middle and high school students are not going to be ready for college or the demands of the workplace. The College Board’s SAT exam is widely seen as a strong predictor of college and career readiness. According to the College Board, only 43% of SAT testers in the class of 2012 are ready for college-level work (College Board, 2012). And of course the SAT only measures those students who are aspiring to attend college. What can we surmise about the workforce readiness of the nearly 60% of students who did not take the SAT last year?

Is this a writing crisis? Are today’s students truly performing at the lowest level ever? It’s difficult to get a true longitudinal picture of student performance over time. While SAT scores for both writing and language arts show declines in recent years, participation among high school students is also at an all-time high (College Board, 2012). This means that a larger and much more diverse selection of students are taking the test, which is a positive development. But the results show us that many of these aspiring college entrants are not prepared for the rigors they will face in the college classroom.

NAEP writing scores—which look at all students, not just the college-bound—show that we have remained largely stagnant for decades (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2012). Changes in the test protocol, including a recent move to computerized testing, make it impossible to directly compare scores across time. However, it appears that writing achievement levels have been roughly the same since the 1970s.

So why is this now a crisis? The problem is that the world has not remained the same since the 1970s. We have transitioned to a knowledge economy that demands higher levels of literacy and stronger communication skills for all workers (Business Roundtable, 2009; The Conference Board, 2006). Students who cannot meet these demands are at risk of being left behind in the 21st century economy.

If we want our students to succeed in higher education and have productive careers, we must ensure that all students achieve grade-level proficiency in writing. How? The answer starts long before students face the 8th grade NAEP or the SAT. If we are going to fix our writing problem, we have to start at the beginning: with the foundational skills in the early grades that prepare students for higher-level thinking and writing.

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