When it comes to the three Rs, reading usually gets top billing. Until last week. That's when the results of a national writing test turned America's gaze to the status of its potential Hemingways.
The news was mixed. Most fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders who took the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress performed at a "basic" level -they could get their point across, though perhaps with grammar and spelling errors. Only a quarter performed at the "proficient" level,writing essays that reflected the skills needed to succeed in school and work. Another 1 percent wrote at the "advanced" level. (See sample questions, page 16.)
Some argue that the bar for proficiency was set too high, but that hasn't dampened the message sent to public and private schools. States where students performed well (Connecticut, Maine), and those where they did not (Louisiana, Hawaii), are all talking about the need to help every child become a better writer.
Advocates were heartened that the students who did perform well indicated that they regularly talk with teachers about their writing, keep portfolios, and are encouraged to write drafts and organize their thoughts before they begin -approaches endorsed by many writing teachers.
States have time to think through how they teach writing (some leave it out if not on state tests) before the next assessment in 2002. By then, reading and writing may have equal status -and, as one writing teacher suggests, "Drop Everything and Read" activities in schools may be joined by "Drop Everything and Write."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society