National Writing Project

“Nation’s Report Card” Shows Modest Improvement in Students’ Writing Scores

By: Gavin Tachibana
Date: April 8, 2008

Summary: Eighth- and twelfth-graders made progress over previous writing assessments, but results were stagnant at the higher levels of achievement. Experts say a lot of work remains.


Writing skills of eighth- and twelfth-graders improved in 2007, according to The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2007, released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). But despite the gains, only a third of eighth-graders and fewer than a quarter of high school seniors tested at or above the proficient level, defined as competency over challenging subject matter.

“Good writing means you can tell a story, provide information, and persuade people with your words,” said Mark Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, responsible for carrying out the NAEP project. “While we still have a ways to go, America’s students are getting better at writing.”

The NAEP writing assessment was also administered in 1998 and 2002. On NAEP’s 300-point scale, the average writing score for eighth-graders has increased three points since 2002, and six points since 1998. For twelfth-graders, the average writing score has gone up three points since 2002 and five points since 1998, largely reflecting an improvement for students performing at the basic level. The percentage of students performing at the proficient level stayed mostly unchanged.

We must use these results to continue to identify the most effective instructional practices to move students toward the higher levels of writing achievement.

“Too few students scored at the top of the chart—at the proficient and advanced levels in writing,” said Sharon Washington, executive director of the National Writing Project. “We must use these results to continue to identify the most effective instructional practices to move students toward the higher levels of writing achievement.”

Results from the test also indicated a slight narrowing of the achievement gap between white and black students. Eighth grade black students made a 6-point increase from 2002 to 2007, greater than the gain made by eighth grade white students. Twelfth grade black students also narrowed the gap, but not by a statistically significant margin. Overall, white, black, and Asian/Pacific Islander students made gains at both grades over their 2002 scores, while Hispanic eighth-graders have made gains since both previous assessments.

Gender Gap Persists, Urban Districts Make Gains

Breaking down results by gender, female students continued to score higher than male students by margins similar to those in previous assessments. The average score for female eighth-graders was 166, compared to 146 for males. For twelfth-graders, females outscored males by 18 points on a 300-point scale.

Results also showed a correlation between writing scores and family income as measured by access to free and reduced-price lunch programs. The average score for students eligible for free lunch was 139; those eligible for reduced-price lunch averaged 150; and students not eligible for the program averaged 164.

Urban districts made noticeable gains in this year’s writing assessment. Three of four urban districts that participated in both the 2002 and 2007 Trial Urban District Assessments posted gains: Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles. As a whole, schools in large central cities (i.e., cities with a population of 250,000 or more) increased their scores by a greater margin than did the total population of schools tested, thus narrowing the difference in performance between urban schools and the rest of the country.

“We are very encouraged by the writing gains of students in America’s major cities taking the nation’s most challenging test,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, the D.C.-based coalition that initiated the city testing. “We’re now closer to the national averages in writing than we are in reading or math, although we are steadily closing the gaps in all three subjects.”

“The National Writing Project is one of the reasons why we are seeing better writing among urban students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” said Casserly, speaking at the April 3 release of results in Washington, D.C.

The 2007 NAEP writing assessment was given to more than 165,000 eighth- and twelfth-graders. Each student responded to two out of 17 possible writing tasks intended to assess their skill in three kinds of writing: narrative, persuasive, or informative.

NAEP is a congressionally authorized project that has assessed the performance of students on a wide variety of academic subjects for more than three decades. In addition to the writing tasks, NAEP assessments include a series of background questions to discover what kinds of writing experiences and instruction are offered across the country.

In a study titled “The State of Writing Instruction in America’s Schools: What Existing Data Tell Us,” Professors Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer of the University of Albany, State University of New York, examined trends indicated by years of NAEP data and found that less time is being spent now on writing in the classroom than in the past. In addition, that time is increasingly competing with standardized test preparation time.

What is clear is that even with some increases over time, many students are not writing a great deal for any of their academic subjects, including English, and most are not writing at any length. Two-thirds of students in Grade 8, for example, are expected to spend an hour or less on writing for homework each week, and 40% of twelfth graders report never or hardly ever being asked to write a paper of 3 pages or more. Although short, focused writing is also important, such more extended writing is necessary to explore ideas or develop arguments in depth. Further, there are strong patterns of differential instruction based on teachers’ notions of what higher- and lower- performing students can be expected to do.

The NAEP data also highlight some external forces that are impacting the teaching of writing, in particular the spread of state standards and accompanying high-stakes tests. In some cases, these may be shifting attention away from a broad program of writing instruction toward a much narrower focus on how best to answer particular types of test questions.


Applebee, Arthur N., and Judith A. Langer. 2006. The State of Writing Instruction in America’s Schools: What Existing Data Tell Us. Albany, NY: Center on English Learning & Achievement, State University of New York at Albany.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2008. The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2007 (National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 8 and 12). Washington, DC: Author.

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