Why can’t high schoolers write?

By Staff Editorial

What if only 25 percent of high school students were proficient in basic algebra? Or if only 25 percent of students could explain a basic scientific process like photosynthesis?

Twenty-five percent, in terms of education, is a pretty low percentage. But, according to a test administered by the National Assessment of Education Progress, that’s the percentage of high school seniors who are able to write proficiently.

Whether that’s the result of poor testing or inadequate schooling, it is not a number that can be ignored. If we hope to have an educated country, we need schools that give students the basic skills to succeed, something often lost in the debate.

Administered to eighth-graders and high school seniors, the nationwide writing test was overseen by NAEP and consisted of two 25-minute essays. The results, released last Thursday, found that only 25 percent of high school seniors write at a “proficient” level. Eighth-graders fared slightly better: Thirty-three percent of them were able to write proficiently.

NAEP officials were quoted as being encouraged by the results of the test. They said they were happy that the results were comparable to those from a similar test in 2002 and hadn’t declined in the past six years. At least students aren’t getting worse, right? Wrong. The fact that only 25 percent of high school seniors are able to write proficiently should be unacceptable. It is a disgustingly low percentage. More importantly, it’s a problem that stays with students beyond high school, moving into college and the workplace.

Granted, the NAEP test plays into the dangers of standardized testing. In a school system under the No Child Left Behind Act, a school reform instituted in 2001 under the Bush administration, the standardized test reigns supreme. Yet, the results of standardized testing can often be manipulated to seem encouraging when they are not, allowing some failing school systems to hide behind misleading scores.

These problems with standardized testing are emblematic of the larger problem in America’s schools. In the classroom, the emphasis on teaching to the test has led students and teachers alike to forget about the actual learning process. It takes time away from improving teaching strategies, making sure that students are learning the fundamentals and giving students the attention they deserve.

The government should mandate a system in which schools and teachers are given the training and resources they need to focus on providing students the skills they need to succeed in a competitive workforce. Unlike the unfunded mandate No Child Left Behind, the government can also put its money where its mouth is. Otherwise, schools are giving the message to get better, but not the means.

While the NAEP test could be viewed as a sign that our schools are preparing 25 percent of their students with proficient writing skills, that’s a distorted view. More accurately, these schools are failing 75 percent of the students. That statistic deserves Congressional attention.