Students who have access to computers at home and regularly use them for assignments are more likely to be strong writers, a national exam suggests. But it also says just a quarter of America's eighth- and 12th-grade students have solid writing skills.
Twenty-seven percent of the students at each of those grade levels were able to write essays that were well developed, organized and had proper language and grammar – 24 percent were considered proficient, 3 percent advanced. The remainder showed just partial mastery of these skills.
"It is important to remember this is first-draft writing," said Mary Crovo, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the Nation's Report Card tests. "They did have some time to edit, but it wasn't extensive editing."
Students who took the writing test in 2011 had an advantage that previous test takers did not: computers with spell-check and thesaurus. Previously, young people taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test had to use pencil and paper; the switch was made in line with changes in technology and a need for today's students to write across electronic formats.
Because this was the first version of the computerized test, the board cautioned against comparing the results to previous exams. In 2007, some 33 percent of eighth-grade students scored at the proficient level, which represents solid writing skills, as did 24 percent at grade 12.
Crovo said most students already use such technology as spell-check on a daily basis. Without those tools, she said, "It's as if years ago we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser."
She said word processing tools alone wouldn't result in significantly better writing scores if students didn't have the core skills of being able to organize ideas and present them in a clear and grammatical fashion.
Still, students in both grades who used the thesaurus and the backspace key more frequently had higher scores than those who used them less often. Students who scored below the 25th percentile were less likely to have computers at home: 87 percent said they did, compared to 99 percent were in the top quarter.
The technology gap was hinted at in other statistics as well: The lowest scorers reported less daily computer use for school assignments, and 44 percent fewer said they always used a computer to make changes to papers or reports.
Mark Warschauer, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, said research consistently shows the use of computers in the classroom improves writing performance. He said students end up writing more, getting more feedback from peers and teachers and publishing more, all of which keeps them motivated.
"It just improves every aspect of the writing process," he said.
The latest test results make a strong argument for more use of technology in English language programs at school, Warschauer said, as home access is more uneven.
The results at both grade levels showed a continuing achievement gap between white, black, Hispanic and Asian students. At the eighth grade, Asian students had the highest average score, which was 33 points higher than black students on a 300-point scale. At the 12th grade, white students scored 27 points above black students.
There was also a gender gap, with girls scoring 20 points higher on average than boys in the eighth grade and 14 points higher in 12th grade. Those who qualified for free and reduced price lunch, a key indicator of poverty, had lower scores than those who did not; there was a 27 point difference between the two at the eighth grade.
For the 2011 exam, laptops were brought into public and private schools across the country and more than 50,000 students were tested to get a nationally representative sample. Students were required to write essays that explained, persuaded or conveyed an experience.
Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor at Florida State University who served on the advisory panel for the test, said one factor to keep in mind is that research shows most students in the United States don't compose at the keyboard.
"What they do is sort of type already written documents into the machine, much as we used to do with typewriters four decades ago," she said.
Yancey said for this reason there was some concern about having students write on computers as opposed to by hand. Likewise, having the advantage of spell-check assumes students know how to use it. And in some schools and neighborhoods, computers are still not easily accessible.
"There are not so many students that actually learn to write composing at the keyboard," she said.
Yancey added that many kids who do have access to computers are not necessarily using them to write at school, but to take standardized tests and fill in bubbles.
"Digital technology is a technology," she said. "Paper and pencil is a technology. If technology were the answer, that would be pretty simple."