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U.S. student writing gets a bit better

Assessment test shows gains for eighth- and 12th graders overall. But race and gender gaps persist.

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American students are slowly getting better at crafting sentences and using the written word to persuade and explain.

That's the good news in the latest results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which on Thursday released its 2007 writing results, the first time eighth- and 12th-graders were tested in the subject since 2002.

There's little change at the top: the portion of students reaching NAEP's "proficient" level in the test didn't change in either grade. But both grades saw significant jumps in the percentage scoring at the "basic" level – a particular achievement for 12th-graders, who as a group have stagnated in other subjects.

Large achievement gaps still persist, though – between white and minority students, higher-income and low-income students, and, far more than in other subjects, between girls and boys.

"The overall improvement in 12th grade is the first good news out of high schools, and that's great," says Amy Wilkins, vice president at the Education Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap. "But our excitement about that is seriously tempered by the lack of national gap closing."

The NAEP test, often called the "nation's report card," is administered nationally to a representative group of students and is considered the best benchmark of students' progress over time in a range of subjects.

The assessment measured students' writing skills through narrative stories and informative and persuasive letters and essays, judging aspects such as organization and sentence structure. Eighth-graders, for instance, were asked to write a letter responding to a student moving to America. Twelfth-graders argued whether "big" or "small" inventions had more of an impact.

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