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Learning to write

September 20th, 2012

I read something this week that really bothered me: “Many students in this country are not skilled writers.” As someone who plans to put pen to paper a lot for a living, seeing that headline made me cringe.

A story published Friday by The Associated Press said that 27 percent of students at both the eighth and 12th grade who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test in 2011 could write at a level the exam considered “proficient.” That means just over a quarter of students’ essays “were well developed, organized and had proper language and grammar,” wrote Christine Armario, the AP reporter who covered the story.

The 2011 edition of the test also gave students an added bonus: the ability to use a computer word processing program, complete with thesaurus and spell-checking tools. Before the switch, test-takers actually had to use pencil. The article highlights results from 2007, when 33 percent of eighth graders and 24 percent of high school seniors scored high enough to be considered “proficient.” But, officials at the National Assessment Governing Board, which administered the test, said comparing the most recent results to those from previous years would be a poor choice because 2011 was the first time students could take the test on the computer. Their prompt was to write an essay “that explained, persuaded or conveyed an experience,” Armario reported.

If you look deeper inside the 27 percent proficiency at each of the grades measured (eighth and 12th grade), only three percent in each grade scored at an “advanced” level, according to the story. The executive summary of the writing report card states 24,100 eighth graders and 28,100 12th graders took the test. Let’s put the statistics to actual numbers: 723 eighth graders and 843 12th graders are “advanced” writers (1,566 total students), and 5,784 eighth graders and 6,744 12th graders are “proficient” writers (12,528 total).

When added all up, 14,094 total eighth and 12th grade students wrote at a “proficient” level or better, and 38,106 didn’t make the cut.

Writing is important to everything we ever do in life because the ability to put thoughts down on paper tells a lot about who we are. If any of us expects to get a job, we have got to be able to write cohesively and effectively. How did all of us get into John Carroll University? We had to write a short essay for our applications.

But, that doesn’t mean learning to write is something that comes instantly. I look back on some of the articles I wrote for The Carroll News, and I see how far I have come since freshman year. I expect that things I write five years down the road will be better than the column you’re reading right now.

Writing is too important an art to be done poorly. Often, college students – me included – pull all-nighters or have quick bursts of productivity right before deadlines to write research reports or finish assignments. Writing a report, an article, a commentary, etc. takes plenty of thought, lots of hitting the backspace and time. Moments exist where it is best to leave the work alone for a while before coming back. A fresher perspective an hour later can make all the difference.

The test serves as a key indicator about American schools, according to a press release about the test results from the governing board. If the test’s sample size actually reflects the progress – or lack thereof – made by students in this country, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.

The results show that more attention needs to be placed on not just writing, but writing well. In my opinion, that means lots of practice, getting your work reviewed by people who know what they’re talking about and asking lots of questions.