Publication Date:

Sep 08, 2016

Trends in Writing Proficiency

64_fig1Average writing proficiency scores increased modestly between 1998 and 2002 for fourth- and eighth-graders (from 150 to 154, and from 150 to 153, respectively);[1] however, there were no significant changes in twelfth-graders’ scores. From 2002 to 2007, eighth-grade writing proficiency scores increased (from 153 to 156), as did twelfth-graders’ scores (from 148 to 153). (Figure 1) A new, computerized, writing test was administered to eighth- and twelfth-graders in
2011; these results are not comparable to those of previous years. (Figure 2)

Differences by Gender

64_fig2Between 1998 and 2007, the gender gap for eighth-grade did not change, but for twelfth-graders, it decreased between 2002 and 2007, after increasing between 1998 and 2002. (Appendix 1)

In 2011, eighth- and twelfth-grade girls, on average, scored higher than boys. Among eighth-graders, females scored an average of 160 points, while males scored an average of 140. Among twelfth-graders, girls scored 157 points, while boys
scored 143, on average. (Figure 2)

Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin[2]

In general, among fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students, white and Asian/Pacific Islanders scored higher than black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native students. For instance, among twelfth-graders in 2011, white and Asian/Pacific Islander students scored highest (averages of 159 and 158, respectively), followed by American Indian/Alaska Native students (145), then Hispanic students (134), and black students (130). (Appendix 2) These gaps held steady between 1998, 2002, and 2007, except that the gap between white and black eighth-graders decreased between 2002 and 2007. (Appendix 1)

Differences by Parent’s Educational Attainment

Overall, in 2002, 2007, and 2011, the more educated the parents of eighth- and twelfth-graders were, the higher were students’ writing scores.[3] For example, in 2011, eighth-grade students with college-educated parents had an average score of 160, compared with 150 for students whose parents had only some education after high school, 138 for students with parents who had a high school education only, and 133 for students whose parents did not finish high school. (Appendix 2)

Differences by Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch Program Eligibility

64_fig3Students who were eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches (because they lived in low-income families) scored lower on the NAEP writing assessment than did students
who were not eligible. In 2011, these scores were 27 points lower for eighth-graders eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch scored than for their counterparts who were ineligible, and for twelfth-graders the gap was 24 points.
(Figure 3) This gap narrowed between 2002 and 2007 for eighth-graders, but there was no change for fourth- or twelfth-graders. (Appendix 1)

State and Local Estimates

2007 state estimates for eighth- and twelfth-graders are available from the Nation’s Report Card.

The following 2002 state estimates are available from the Kids Count Data Center (Select Test Scores):

  • 4th graders who scored below the basic writing level
  • 4th graders who scored at or above the proficient writing level
  • 8th graders who scored below the basic writing level
  • 8th graders who scored at or above the proficient writing level.

1998 state estimates for fourth- and eighth-graders are available from the National Center for Education Statistics:

Data and Appendices

Data Sources

Data for 1998 and 2002: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics. The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2002,NCES 2003-529, by H.R Persky, M.C. Daane, and Y. Jin. Washington, DC: 2003.

Data for 2007:U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics. The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2007,NCES 2008-468. Washington, DC: 2008.

Data for 2011: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2011 Writing Assessments. Accessed through the NAEP data tool. Available at

Raw Data Source

National Assessment of Educational Progress, Writing Assessments




Writing proficiency is determined by performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and it is measured by average scale scores. The NAEP assessment assesses fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders on writing. Fourth-graders were not assessed in 2007 or 2011. Scale scores range from 0 to 300.

Each grade level and each subject area has criteria for achievement-level, categorized as basic, proficient, or advanced. This represents what students should know.

For more information on the abilities expected for each level, see this site.

  • Fourth Grade
    • Basic (115-175)
    • Proficient (176-224)
    • Advanced (225-300)
  • Eighth Grade
    • Basic (114-172)
    • Proficient (173-223)
    • Advanced (224-300)
  • Twelfth Grade
    • Basic (122-177)
    • Proficient (178-229)
    • Advanced (230-300)

The Writing Framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) details what is assessed by the Writing NAEP. The framework defines the structure, organization, and general content for the assessment.

  1. Students should write for a variety of purposes: narrative, informative, and persuasive.
  2. Students should write on a variety of tasks and for many different audiences.
  3. Students should write from a variety of stimulus materials and within various time constraints.
  4. Students should generate, draft, revise, and edit ideas and forms of expression in their writing.
  5. Students should display effective choices in the organization of their writing. They should include details to illustrate and elaborate their ideas and use appropriate conventions of written English..
  6. Students should value writing as a communicative activity.

See this resource for more information.


[1]In 2007 and 2011, fourth graders were not administered the writing assessment.

[2]Note that none of the race groups include Hispanics of those races.

[3]No information for fourth-graders is available.

Suggested Citation:

Child Trends Databank. (2012). Writing proficiency. Available at: