Too Many Students Flunk Writing

Published June 1, 2003

In response to growing concerns in the business, education, and policy-making communities about the low level of student writing skills, a blue-ribbon panel is recommending a writing agenda for the nation that includes doubling the time most K-12 students currently spend on writing, requiring all prospective teachers to be grounded in the theory and practice of writing as a condition of licensure, and making sure a comprehensive writing policy is part of all state standards.

The April 2003 report, “The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution,” was produced by the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, a panel established by the College Board last September and made up largely of K-12 and college-level educators and administrators.

“Writing must be an important focus beginning in elementary school,” said Commission Chair C. Peter Magrath, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. “The writing weaknesses of incoming college students cost our campuses up to $1 billion annually. And business leaders complain about the writing skills of new employees.”

In detailing the current state of writing in U.S. schools, it becomes obvious why the report was titled “The Neglected ‘R'”:

  • Most fourth-grade students spend less than three hours a week writing, which is approximately the same amount of time per day they spend watching television.
  • Nearly 66 percent of high school seniors do not write a three-page paper as often as once a month for their English teachers.
  • Three-quarters of high school seniors never receive a writing assignment in history or social studies.
  • The senior research project has become an educational curiosity, something rarely assigned because teachers do not have time to correct such projects.

None of these findings would surprise Will Fitzhugh, president of the National Writing Board and founder and editor of The Concord Review, a quarterly journal of history research papers written by high school students. Since 1987, the Review has published more than 500 papers–averaging 5,000 words in length, with endnotes and bibliography–by students from 42 states and 33 countries.

“It seems likely that the history research paper at the high school level is now an endangered species,” wrote Fitzhugh in January 2002. Among the contributing factors he cited were “fascination with PowerPoint presentations,” a lack of time for teachers to read the papers, and “a notable absence of concern for term papers in virtually all the work on state standards.”

Earlier Findings Similar

In November 2002, The Concord Review published a “History Research Paper Study” that included a nationwide survey of high school teachers. The study’s key findings presaged those of the National Commission:

  • An overwhelming majority (95 percent) of teachers surveyed believe that writing a research term paper is important or very important; but
  • Three out of five (62 percent) never assign a paper of 3,000-5,000 words; and
  • Four out of five (81 percent) never assign a paper of more than 5,000 words.

The principal reasons cited for not assigning long papers were the amount of time required for reading and grading the papers, and the fact that this time almost always had to be taken from the teacher’s personal time in the evenings or on weekends.

“The Neglected ‘R'” report cites 1998 writing test data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which show that at grades 4, 8, and 12, only about one U.S. student in five is rated as a “Proficient” writer and only one student in 100 is rated as an “Advanced” writer. By NAEP standards, a “Proficient” writer is one who can write “precise, engaging, and coherent” prose.

“By grade 12, most students are producing relatively immature and unsophisticated writing,” concluded the report, adding that the writing of more than one in five high school seniors is riddled with errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

ACT Survey: Grammar Not Emphasized

To improve the teaching of writing, the National Commission calls for increasing the financial resources devoted to writing. It warns, “Writing will not be improved on the cheap or by hectoring teachers.” However, a recent survey conducted by the College Board’s rival, ACT Inc., suggests the teaching of writing could be improved dramatically simply by having high school teachers emphasize that grammar and usage skills are important.

The ACT survey was conducted on high school teachers and college faculty who teach entry-level courses. The survey results, announced in early April, showed a major disagreement between these two groups regarding the importance of grammar and usage skills. Out of six writing skills categories, grammar and usage rank first in importance at the college level, but last in importance at the high school level, where they receive the least instructional attention.

“When high school teachers and curriculum specialists understand what colleges expect students to know and be able to do, they can use these expectations to review their high school English courses to make sure they are focusing on the rigorous skills needed in college,” said Cynthia Schmeiser, ACT’s vice president for development.

Low Priority in Ed Schools

Recent studies suggest as many as half of today’s college freshmen must take at least one remedial course in college, with more than four in 10 of these taking a remedial course in writing. A 2002 Public Agenda survey reported three out of four employers and college professors rated public school graduates as having only “fair” or “poor” skills with regard to grammar, spelling, and writing clearly.

Why would K-12 teachers put a low priority on grammar and usage skills? Because that’s what they are taught to do by their professors in schools of education, according to another Public Agenda survey conducted in 1997. Only one in five professors of education said it is “absolutely essential” to produce teachers who stress correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].