Students in Maryland and the rest of the nation perform slightly better on the second "R" than they do on the first one, but their writing and reading skills are far below national standards, according to results released yesterday of the latest national writing assessment.
Twenty-three percent of Maryland eighth-graders showed they have a complete mastery of necessary writing skills on the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, and 1 percent scored at an advanced level -- about the national average in both categories.
"I think we can do better, and I think we should do better," said Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
The NAEP writing test results underscore the problems that U.S. schools have teaching children to read because students who are unable to read are likely to perform poorly on writing exams.
But the results also demonstrated that schools seem to be doing better helping writers. Only 17 percent of eighth-graders in Maryland and 17 percent nationwide scored below the basic level for writing -- less than half the percentage of pupils who scored below the basic level on the reading test results released last winter.
"The vast majority of our young people are at the 'basic level' and many of them are very close to moving up one notch to the 'proficient' level," U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at a news conference in Washington to release the results. "We seem to be heading in the right direction."
The NAEP writing exam -- the first since 1992 by the National Center for Education Statistics -- tested 160,000 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders nationwide last year.
The most recent results cannot be compared with those of the 1992 exam because the tests are different, and state-by-state results are only available for eighth grade. Results for the fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade tests were fairly consistent nationwide.
Of the 36 states for which results are available, most scores were close. Five states performed statistically better than Maryland -- Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Texas and Wisconsin -- and 10 states were significantly worse.
Maryland educators said the five states with higher scores have less poverty. The writing exam found that students from low-income families tend to have lower scores.
Grasmick said she believes reading reforms begun during the past two years in Maryland will help improve students' writing.
"There is a hierarchy of skills, and reading has to come before writing," she said.
Grasmick said she believes students' writing skills in Maryland have improved significantly in the 1990s, in part because the exams given each year to all third-, fifth- and eighth-graders -- the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program -- place a heavy emphasis on writing.
"If we had looked at the NAEP before the MSPAP, it would have been significantly below where it is today," Grasmick said. "I do think there has been enormous progress, and NAEP is trying to ratchet up the standards even more."
The test results showed a continuing gap between the performance of white students and that of minority students in Maryland and the country. In addition, girls scored significantly better than boys.
"The gender gap that is so pronounced when it comes to reading and writing between boys and girls deserves some real attention by researchers," Riley said. "We don't have the answer as to why this gap is a gap."