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Indicator I-2 Writing Proficiency
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
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Updated (7/9/2013) with data for 2011.

See the
Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels.

In addition to reading, writing is a core humanistic competency measured by the NAEP (see also U.S. history and civics). Since 1969, NAEP has evaluated fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade students’ writing achievement on the basis of their responses to standardized prompts. In 2011, the framework, questions, and scoring scales for the writing assessment were revised, and the examination was administered for the first time on computer. Thus, 2011 results cannot be meaningfully compared to those from previous years. For this reason the Humanities Indicators presents results for 2011 separately from those for earlier years.

The NAEP writing scores are reported here by achievement level. For details as to the writing competencies students in each grade should be able to demonstrate at each achievement level, see

In the most recent pre-2011 assessment year—2002 for fourth graders and 2007 for eighth and 12th graders—close to 90% of students in the two lower grades demonstrated at least basic writing competency, a level that reflects modest growth since 1998 (Figure I-2a). The rise is attributable to an increase in the share of students demonstrating higher-order writing skills.

Figure I-2a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

Twelfth-grade performance was somewhat lower and more dynamic. Seniors’ performance slipped from 1998 to 2002, with the percentage of students scoring at the basic achievement level or better declining from 78% to 74%. But over the next five years that lost ground was recovered. In 2007, the percentage of 12th graders scoring at the basic level or higher was 82%. This gain among 12th graders reflects growth of the share of students who demonstrated basic writing competence. No growth occurred from 2002 to 2007 in the share of high school seniors exhibiting true writing proficiency. Since 1998, fewer than one in four soon-to-be high school graduates have been assessed as writing at the proficient level or higher (within the NAEP framework, a proficient writer is one who demonstrates a grasp of writing skills that are essential for success in most walks of life; these skills include the use of transitional elements and the ability to select language appropriate for the intended audience).

Although the NAEP is not a longitudinal assessment (i.e., it does not follow the same students over time), the spacing of the assessments permits the tracking of one cohort’s performance as it moves through the educational system. The sample of eighth graders assessed in 1998 was from the same cohort of students from which the 2002 sample of 12th graders was drawn. Between early and late adolescence, this cohort’s demonstrated writing ability declined, with 26% of them failing to demonstrate at least basic competency as high schoolers, compared with only 16% of the sample drawn from this same group when they were in middle school. The cohort of 12th graders who were assessed as part of NAEP did not include those students who dropped out of school before reaching their senior year. Had these individuals remained in school long enough to be tested, they would presumably have increased the percentage of students demonstrating less than basic achievement in writing.

The 2011 NAEP writing assessment was based on a redesigned framework that defines writing as “a complex, multifaceted, and purposeful act of communication that is accomplished in a variety of environments, under various constraints of time, and with a variety of language resources and technological tools.”1

In keeping with this definition, all assessment tasks specified both a definite purpose for the writing and a specific audience the writing should address. Additionally, students were supplied with typical language resources such as a thesaurus, as well as common computer tools such as a spell-checker and cut, copy, and paste functions. The new scoring scales and achievement levels were developed separately for the eighth and 12th grades (the assessment was not administered to fourth graders). Future assessment results will be compared with these 2011 results.

In 2011, the distribution of eighth graders among the various achievement levels was virtually identical to that of 12th graders (Figure I-2b). The largest share of students, just over half in each grade, demonstrated basic achievement in writing. Approximately a quarter of students in each grade level demonstrated true proficiency in writing. At the other end of the performance spectrum, approximately 20% of both eighth and 12th graders scored below the basic achievement level.

Figure I-2b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

While this indicator provides a general picture, the NAEP Data Explorer permits more detailed analyses of these data by gender, ethnicity, and a number of other key variables. With this tool one can also obtain results of recent writing assessments for individual states and compare them with student outcomes in other parts of the country. For both an overview of Explorer and tips for its effective use, see The Explorer itself is located at


U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2011: National Assessment of Educational Progress at Grades 8 and 12, NCES 2012-470 (Washington, DC: U.S Department of Education, 2012), 4,

Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels

Figures I-1a, I-1b, and I-1c display the percentages of students scoring at certain levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) long-term trend reading assessment. This NAEP examination is scored differently from the other NAEP tests, such as those in writing, history, and civics, and the “main” NAEP reading assessment (for an explanation of the differences between the two NAEP reading assessments, see

On the latter exams, students are assessed according to grade-specific achievement scales. A student’s level of achievement is judged to be “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” depending on his or her score on the appropriate scale. A score at the “basic” level indicates that a student has demonstrated partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade. A score of “proficient” indicates solid academic performance—students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter. An “advanced” score represents superior performance. A child scoring at the “advanced” achievement level on the 12th-grade exam in a given subject area is demonstrating different skills than a fourth grader scoring at the “advanced” level.

In contrast, the NAEP long-term trend reading assessment uses a single scale, referred to as a performance scale, for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. What constitutes “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” performance depends on the age of the examinee. Both a 9-year-old and a 17-year-old may score at Level 250 (able to interrelate ideas and make generalizations). Such a score would constitute an advanced level of performance on the part of the 9-year-old and a basic level of performance on the part of the 17-year-old.

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