About one-third of America's eighth-grade students, and about one in four high school seniors, are proficient writers, according to results of a nationwide test released yesterday.
The test, administered last year, showed that there were modest increases in the writing skills of low-performing students since the last time a similar exam was given, in 2002. But the skills of high-performing eighth- and 12th-graders remained flat or declined.
Girls far outperformed boys in the test, with 41 percent of eighth-grade girls scoring at or above the proficient level, compared with 20 percent of eighth-grade boys.
New Jersey and Connecticut were the two top-performing states, with more than half their students scoring at or above the proficient level (56 percent in New Jersey, 53 percent in Connecticut). Those two and 17 other states ranked above New York, where 31 percent of students wrote at the proficient level.
Authorities in the federal government's school testing program said they were encouraged by the results, especially since they seemed to counter other recent indicators suggesting a decline in Americans' writing abilities.
"I am happy to report, paraphrasing Mark Twain, that the death of writing has been greatly exaggerated," said Amanda P. Avallone, an eighth-grade English teacher who is a vice chairwoman of the board that oversees the federal testing program, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card.
Still, some experts questioned whether the test, which asks students to write brief essays in a short time, gave an accurate measurement of their writing ability.
The results were released at a news conference yesterday at the Library of Congress in Washington.
James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, drew laughs when he expressed concern about what he called "the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought, the sentence," because young Americans are doing most of their writing in disjointed prose composed in Internet chat rooms or in cell phone text messages.
"The sentence is the biggest casualty," Billington said. "To what extent is students' writing getting clearer? Is that still being taught?"
Avallone sought to allay his concerns.
"I know that the sentence has not been put to rest as a unit of communication," she said.
Avallone said the differences between girls' and boys' scores might result in part from lower literacy expectations for boys in public schools.
"These days I seldom, if ever, hear the message that math and science do not matter for girls, yet I do still encounter the myth that many boys won't really need to write very much or very well once they leave school," Avallone said.
The national writing test was given to 140,000 eighth-graders and 28,000 12th-grade students, selected to form a representative sample of all students nationwide in those grades. Each student wrote two 25-minute essays, designed to measure student skills at writing to inform, persuade and tell stories.
Overall, 33 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above the proficiency level, which the test designers defined as competency in carrying out challenging academic tasks, while 88 percent scored at or above the basic level, defined as partial mastery of the skills needed for proficient work.
While 33 percent of eighth-graders writing with proficiency might not sound like a lot, it is the best performance by eighth-graders on any subject matter tested in the national assessment program in the past three years. Smaller percentages of eighth-grade students have performed at the proficiency level in reading, math, science, civics or history tests. Only 17 percent of eighth-graders managed a proficient score on the nationwide history exam in 2006, for example.