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Students Improve, Barely, on Writing Test

About a third of the nation's eighth-grade students and almost a quarter of 12th-graders are proficient writers, according to recently released test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Some education experts and U.S. Department of Education officials, Secretary Margaret Spellings included, are praising the scores as "historic highs," although the proportion of students demonstrating writing proficiency is not significantly higher than in 2002 when the exam was last given.

But the report does show gains for minority students and male students, with a six-point increase in the average score for black students contributing to a smaller gap between them and their white peers. An eight-point increase in the males' writing score has also narrowed the male-female gap.

Spellings was encouraged that the average score for Hispanic eighth-graders was higher than in the most previous assessments in 2002 and 1998.

The test from NAEP, often referred to as the "nation's report card," was given to 168,000 eighth and 12th graders who were selected to form a representative sample of all students nationwide in the two grades. Students wrote two 25-minute essays intended to measure narrative, informative and persuasive writing skills.

Ten urban districts volunteered to take part in the eighth-grade assessment, and the gains in Atlanta and Los Angeles in particular were greater than those of the state of Georgia and the state of California, respectively.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly L. Hall says their across-the-board increase in all subject areas - writing, reading and math - and grades tested by NAEP is a result of their "eight-plus years of focus on providing intensive instructional support for students. Because of the vigilance and commitment of our students, parents, teachers, administrators and partners, APS continues to move the needle on student achievement."

"Of the students entering high school, 67 percent are writing below grade level, which means they don't have the writing skills they need to succeed," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based policy organization. "With employers looking at the ability to write well as essential for any job candidate, our high schools need to do more."


Turning the American Idol Tide

Citing a lack of strong instruction in civics ed and a failure to impart students with skills to be responsible citizens, a group of teachers, professors and technology experts are developing a free Web-based project, "Our Courts," to promote participation in a representative democracy.

The Web site's media-rich interactive learning environment will be designed to captivate and engage students via 21st century learning styles.

The program is the brainchild of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who says the "evidence is clear and should be profoundly disturbing." "Two-thirds of American teenagers know at least one of the judges on American Idol," she said at the National School Boards Association (NSBA) annual conference in March. "Less than one in 10 can name the chief justice of the United States."

Primarily geared toward sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, the Our Courts project will be available to students and teachers nationwide by the fall for use in classes, enrichment programs and extracurricular activities.

O'Connor urges educators to contact the site,, to make suggestions on how the content can be delivered and to play a dynamic role in teaching civics.


School Bullies "Get the Picture," Thanks to New Short Films

School bullies are often portrayed as menacing, domineering figures in movies. And for some real eighth-grade instigators in Illinois and Nebraska, playing pseudo-fictionalized character renditions of themselves in two new films may be giving them a first glance at their harmful behavior.

The two 25-minute movies, Stories of Us, star students from Franklin Middle School in Champaign, Ill., and Irving Middle School in Lincoln, Neb., and are being sold to schools throughout the country along with accompanying teaching and professional development resources as part of a new anti-bullying program. Directed by Australian fi lmmaker Christopher Faull, the films capture the school drama of how initial rumors or incidents can escalate into altercations or fights, sometimes exacerbated through the use of cell phones and the Internet.


Those involved with the project say the films act as a mirror to the students' actual lives.

"It has had a profound effect," says Angela Smith, principal of Franklin Middle School, which will be among the first group of schools to use the film and resources next year and has already used them to tailor discussions for graduating eighth-graders. In-depth conversations about race and behavior have been generated among both students and staff , she says, "and the movies have prompted some former bullies to say, 'That's not right.'"

Faull says that with the growing attention the project has received-four of the students were interviewed on the CBS Early Show in late April-combined with the experience of having launched a similar program in Australia, the company expects between 500 and 800 orders for the classroom resources by mid-June. For more information go to