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Writing tests break new ground

The National Assessment of Educational Progress on Friday released the result of its first tests given entirely on computer, writing assessments taken by a national sample of eighth-graders and 12th-graders in 2011.

The results showed that about 27 percent of students in both grades scored at or above “proficient” and about 80 percent performed at the “basic” level or higher.

The tests, given to 24,600 eighth-graders and 28,900 high school seniors in both public and private schools, scored students as basic, proficient or advanced. The average scale score for both grades was 150 out of 300.

Test results were not broken down by state, so scores for Colorado students were not available.

Because of the new format, the results can’t be compared to previous pen-and-pencil NAEP writing tests.

“Only a quarter of the nation’s students are scoring where we want them to,” said Susan Pimentel, an education consultant who serves on the NAEP board. Although the results can’t be directly compared to past tests, she said, “What is interesting is that the 2011 data show the same patterns (as) paper and pencil tests” in such areas as achievement gaps. “The gender gap – it is stark.”

For instance, test results found the percentage of eighth-grade girls scoring proficient or above was twice the percentage of boys. “Boys are lagging behind girls substantially,” she noted.

During a live webinar, Pimentel and other experts stressed the promise of electronic testing and the importance of what Pimentel called “an historic event.”

Arthur Applebee, an expert in language education from the State University of New York campus in Albany, noted, “The students were clearly ready. … People were worried that students weren’t ready, but those worries were wrong.”

Commenting on whether there is a digital divide between students based on family income, Applebee said, “The short answer seems to be no. … The computer format doesn’t seem to penalize one group or another.” Test results showed the achievement gaps are similar for paper test and computer assessments, he said.

Beverly Chin, director of the English teaching program at the University of Montana, said the tests “highlight the importance of integrating computers into writing instruction.”

In Colorado

Colorado’s current testing system requires annual separate writing tests in grades three through 10.

TCAP test results for 2012, released last month, showed 54 percent of students are writing at grade level, a marginal decline from 2011.

Results for only Colorado eighth-graders have been broken out on two prior NAEP writing tests, in 1998 and in 2007. The 1998 Colorado students scored as levels about the same as the nation; in 2007, state scores were slightly higher.

NAEP, often called the “nation’s report card,” tests on a variety of subjects at different time intervals. Most tests are given to representative samples of fourth-graders and eighth- graders. State-by-state results are broken out for some tests but not others. Check this NAEP page for state results. Click Colorado on the U.S. map and then scroll down to see results over the years.

Many states don’t test writing separately but rather include it in overall English tests. There have been attempts to eliminate writing tests in Colorado to save money, but those have been rebuffed in the legislature.

The future of separate writing tests is unclear. The TCAP tests are transitional, and for now it appears Colorado will move in two or three years to multistate tests being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing consortium. That group is creating English and math tests based on the Common Core Standards, which Colorado has adopted.

Colorado probably will have to develop its own tests in science, which is currently tested; in social studies, which the State Board of Education wants to add; and possibly in writing.