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Writing and digital learning

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September 17, 2012 03:56 pm


The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in writing, released on September 14, offer compelling evidence about the power of digital learning in fostering deeper learning – and of the ways that an innovative assessment can bring about change.

The writing assessment was the first to be conducted completely on computers. Students in grades 8 and 12 read prompts, augmented by audio and video, and wrote persuasive, explanatory and narrative pieces in response to the prompts, using word-processing software. Over all, about a fourth of students at each grade scored above the proficent level or above, and half scored at the basic level or above. (The results cannot be compared with those of previous years, beecuase those were administered with paper and pencil.)

But the more interesting results are buried beneath the overall results. Because the test was administered on computeres, NAEP could analyze how much students used things like backspaces to make corrections, spell-check and thesauruses. And, it found, students who used those tools more often did much better on the assessment than those who did not. That is, students who appeared to be more self-reflective about their writing wrote better than those who did not step back and review what they had written. While NAEP can’t show that these practices caused better writing performance, the correlation is strong.

The assessment also showed that students who use computers in class to write or revise their papers performed much better than those who used computers rarely or not at all. This is not news – the same was true in 2008, when students were assessed with pencil and paper. That means that the use of computers in instruction appears to benefit writing performance – or at least that students who write better have more access to computers in classrooms.

But as Arthur Applebee, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany, pointed out on a webinar releasing the results, state tests might be holding teachers back from using computers in class. Because the tests are mostly administered on paper, teachers might be reluctant to have students write using a format that is different from the way it will be tested.

These results show that fear is misguided. And they sho that things might change beginning in 2014, when the two state consortia developing assessments introduce thier new computer-based tests.

But while digital learning can help improve student writing, the NAEP results also show that a more serious need is for more writing in schools. Nearly 40 percent of twelfth graders reported that they wrote one page or less a week for homeowrk in English language arts classes. And, predictably, these students did less well than students who wrote more. In order to be prepared for postsecondary education, all students need to write more than a page a week – preferably on a computer.

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


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