Not The Write Stuff

, Kristen Blair, Leave a comment

Writing well is hard to do. It
requires skill, time, and lots of effort. Would-be writers
must also learn the fundamentals of English usage, style, and
grammar. Ten million purchases of the venerated 1959 manual,
The Elements of Style, are proof positive of the
timeless need for sensible guidance in the rules of

If recent test scores are any indication,
though, instruction in the writing basics is in short supply
in North Carolina. According to new eighth grade writing
scores on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational
(NAEP), North Carolina (PDF) was the only state in the country whose scores
declined. This dubious distinction was curiously omitted from
the Department of Public Instruction’s press release trumpeting the headline: “NC
NAEP Writing Scores at National Average.”

While it’s
true that North Carolina’s 2007 writing scores kept pace with
the national average, this is hardly something
to crow about. Nationally, just 31 percent of eighth graders
scored at proficient levels. In North Carolina, only 28
percent of eighth graders wrote proficiently, a drop of six
points from 2002.

State test results also revealed
disturbing achievement gaps. Only 16 percent of low-income
children, 12 percent of African American students, and 16
percent of Hispanic pupils scored at proficient levels. Boys
also fared poorly: a mere 18 percent were proficient, compared
to 42 percent of girls.

Scores were not broken down by
individual school districts. However, results for
Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools (CMS) (available because the
system participated in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment)
provided a bit of good news. CMS eighth grade students bested (PDF) the average American central
city score by nine percentage points. Still, more than
two-thirds of CMS students cannot write

Why are writing scores so low – here and
nationally? One simple reason is that students don’t write
often enough. A 2003 report from the National Commission on
Writing found that elementary students spend three hours a
week or less on writing. At the high school level, “nearly 66
percent of high school seniors do not write a three-page paper
as often as once a month for their English teachers.” In many
public schools, writing loses out to frequently tested
subjects like reading and math. This trend may well increase
if recommendations from North Carolina’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Testing and
– to end state writing tests in fourth,
seventh, and tenth grade – are adopted.

Kids aren’t
avid readers either – a major concern since frequent reading
correlates positively with writing scores. A 2007 report from
the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found that only 30
percent of 13-year-olds read almost every day for fun. Among
17-year-olds, just 22 percent read almost every day for
enjoyment. Instead of reading, adolescents and young adults
are often online or watching television – TV time averages a
whopping two hours per weekday, says the NEA.

are also failing to teach grammar fundamentals. Opposition to
grammar instruction has come from the National Council of Teachers of English
(NCTE). A 1985 NCTE resolution inexplicably disparaged grammar
exercises as a “deterrent” to improvements in speaking and
writing and a hindrance to the “development of students’ oral
and written language.” Professor David Mulroy, author of The War Against Grammar, has said of NCTE’s position: “Thanks to their
efforts, grammar has been banished from ‘grammar school.'”
Fortunately, grammar instruction seems to be experiencing a resurgence of sorts.

Let’s hope it
continues. Writing proficiency is a critical skill – and one
that employers say is in increasingly short supply among high
school graduates. We must do better to prepare students for
what lies ahead. But it will require considerable effort. As
British novelist Anthony Trollope said, “There is no way of
writing well and also of writing easily.”

We’ve done
“easy” for long enough. Now it’s time to get to work.