Tuesday, September 28, 1999

National writing
test finds isle
kids lacking

Hawaii eighth-graders did as
well or better than those
in 10 other states

Children asked to imagine, explain

By Helen Altonn


Hawaii's eighth-graders do better at writing than reading, according to a national assessment released today. Still, more work is needed to help them write as well as students in their grade level in 26 other states, the study shows.

Eighth-graders nationally also could do a lot better when it comes to writing, the results indicate.

About three-fourths of the nation's schoolchildren demonstrated only partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed to write proficiently for their grade level, the Education Department reported.

Testers asked 60,000 fourth-graders, eighth-graders and 12th-graders to write stories, personal essays, reports about events or experiences, and persuasive pieces.

Only eighth-graders were tested in Hawaii -- 2,647 students from 49 public schools.

One in 4 are below standard

The National Assessment of Educational Progress found:

Bullet 72 percent were at or above basic achievement level, meaning they had only partial mastery of grade-level knowledge and skills.

Bullet 15 percent were at or above proficient levels, representing solid academic performance and competency over subject matter.

Bullet 1 percent were advanced or had superior performance.

Among eighth-graders tested nationally, 83 percent were at or above the basic achievement level; 24 percent were at or above the proficient level; and 1 percent were advanced.

The testing, conducted last year, covered 35 states and four jurisdictions.

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Texas and Wisconsin had the highest percentages of students writing at or above the proficient level.

Hawaii students tested about the same as those in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Their scores were higher than those in the District of Columbia, Mississippi and the Virgin Islands.

Leila Naka, state educational specialist in language arts, said the writing assessment was done for the first time. It is only a sampling rather than the large population reflected in other standardized tests but it provides some good information, she said.

"We do need to work harder (on writing)," she said.

However, Hawaii students did better on the writing assessment than on an earlier reading assessment, which also included fourth-graders, she noted.

Only the District of Columbia was below Hawaii in the reading assessment, she said.

She also pointed out that Hawaii's urban students scored about the same as "central city" students in other states. It's in the urban fringe or rural areas where students aren't performing close to the national levels, she said.

Naka also noted demographic and other factors. Some states with the highest writing levels don't have the diverse language groups that Hawaii does, she said.

And some have a lot more money. "Look at the amount of dollars coming into California for education," she said. "It far exceeds the amount of dollars coming into Hawaii."

Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said, "While writing has not always received the emphasis it deserves, our revised Hawaii Content and Performance Standards make it clear that writing is an essential and interrelated component of language arts."

Putting emphasis on writing

He said the writing assessment will provide a baseline for eighth-grade students "while the writing standards raise our expectation for higher achievement."

The tests and score levels were determined by the National Assessment Governing Board, a quasi-governmental body created by Congress to act as an independent judge of education standards. The testing was done by the Education Department.

"These findings are important, because how well students write at the end of the 20th century is an indicator of how well they will be able to communicate and reason in the beginning of the 21st century," said Gary Phillips, acting commissioner for the department's National Center for Education Statistics.

Average scores nationally ranged from 124 to 165 on a 0-to-300 point scale. Hawaii's average was 135, with 28 percent below the basic level, compared to 148 nationally, with 17 percent below.

Several states at a workshop last week attributed higher scores to writing programs.

"What is encouraging is that those states that did best are those that have been seriously pursuing writing standards for some years, much as we have now started to do," LeMahieu said.

Naka said the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards "give us checkpoints."

"They make clear what our students should be able to do, what they should know. I think that will do a lot in helping us to do the kinds of reforms we need in reading and writing.

"The second would be to provide our schools with the support needed to get all of our students to meet those expectations."

Writing by the numbers

Some figures from the National Assessment Governing Board's testing in 1998.

Bullet 15%: Hawaii's public school eighth-graders who scored at the proficient level or above in writing tests.
Bullet 35: Number of states that gave the writing test. The District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands also gave the test.
Bullet 1%: Students in each grade group who were judged able to write at an advanced level.
Bullet 1992: Last year in which a national test of students' writing skills was administered.
Bullet 23%: Fourth-grade students who wrote at the proficiency level or above.

Children asked to
imagine, explain

Associated Press


Sample questions used by the National Assessment Governing Board to test the writing skills of fourth-graders, eighth-graders and 12th-graders:


We all have favorite objects that we care about and would not want to give up.

Think of one object that is important or valuable to you. For example, it could be a book, a piece of clothing, a game, or any object you care about.

Write about your favorite object. Be sure to describe the object and explain why it is valuable or important to you.


Imagine this situation!

A noise outside awakens you one night. You look out the window and see a spaceship.

The door of the spaceship opens, and out walks a space creature. What does the creature look like? What does the creature do? What do you do?

Write a story about what happens next.


Your school is sponsoring a voter registration drive for 18-year-old high school students. You and three of your friends are talking about the project. Your friends say the following.

Friend 1: "I'm working on the young voters' registration drive. Are you going to come to it and register? You're all 18, so you can do it. We're trying to help increase the number of young people who vote, and it shouldn't be too hard -- I read that the percentage of 18- to 20-year-olds who vote increased in recent years. We want that percentage to keep going up."

Friend 2: "I'll be there. People should vote as soon as they turn 18. It's one of the responsibilities of living in a democracy."

Friend 3: "I don't know if people should even bother to register. One vote in an election isn't going to change anything."

Do you agree with Friend 2 or 3? Write a response to your friends in which you explain whether you will or will not register to vote.

Be sure to explain why and support your position with examples from your reading or experience.

Try to convince the friend with whom you disagree that your position is the right one.

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