Students and Computers: Assessing the Writing Skills of Fourth-Graders on the Computer

Students and Computers Image

Computers play an ever-increasing role in modern society and modern education. But can the writing skills of young students be effectively assessed on the computer? NAEP recently released results of the Grade 4 Writing Computer-Based Assessment (WCBA) study, which explored this very question.

The WCBA study was not a full-fledged NAEP assessment. It did not employ a nationally representative sample and thus the results only describe the performance of the students who participated, and not fourth-graders nationwide. However, the sample included large numbers of students from all major racial/ethnic groups in the U.S., sufficient to provide reliable results for these students and to allow comparisons on the basis of race/ethnicity.

The study was administered to about 13,000 grade 4 students. The students were provided a laptop and headphones to fully engage with the computer-based assessment, which included video and audio. Students completed either two 30-minute writing tasks or three 20-minute writing tasks. The WCBA captured a snapshot of students’ abilities to develop, organize, and express their ideas to achieve a purpose and address a specified audience.

The figure below shows the distribution of student scores on the 30-minute writing tasks across six performance levels: 1. Little or no writing ability; 2. Marginal; 3. Developing; 4. Adequate; 5. Competent; 6. Effective.

Column graph titled ‘NAEP Mathematics Performance.’ The graph shows four horizontal columns. The X axis for the two left columns is labeled ‘Eligible for NSLP.’ The X axis for the two right columns is labeled ‘Not Eligible for NSLP.’ The Y axis is labeled ‘percent at or above proficient’ and shows the average percentage of Black and White males who scored at or above proficient on NAEP grade 8 mathematics in 2013. The percentage = 10 for Black males who are eligible for NSLP, which is significantly different from that of White males. The percentage = 27 for White males who are eligible for NSLP. The percentage = 23 for Black males who are not eligible for NSLP, which is significantly different from that of White males. The percentage = 53 for White males who are not eligible for NSLP.

Almost 39 percent of the responses received a score of 1 or 2. These responses showed low to marginal writing skills. They provided insufficient supporting statements and were not consistent in their use of proper grammar and mechanics.

About 47 percent of student responses received a score of 3 or 4, indicating that they demonstrated some control of writing, most of their ideas were on topic, and they used simple organizational strategies in most of their writing. Approximately 14 percent of the responses, demonstrated competent or effective writing skills and received a score of 5 or 6. These responses showed more control in their writing, were fairly balanced, and reflected some awareness of audience and voice as well as control of grammar and mechanics.

Though there was some variability in student performance, the study indicates that 4th-graders can “meaningfully participate in a computer-based writing assessment,” as the National Assessment Governing Board has stated. A full report on the WCBA study is available from the NAEP website. Results from the study will assist in the development of the first NAEP computer-based writing assessment to be administered at all three grades assessed by NAEP—grades 4, 8, and 12—scheduled for 2017. In addition, the full report contains extensive information on technical aspects of student use of the computer that can be of value to researchers studying computer use by beginning writers.

October 14, 2014



This gives me no information with which to meaningfully judge anything. I have no point of comparison. Before you start confounding the assessment of writing skills with computer skills, please do a study that would meet the standards of the USDOE's own What Works Clearninghouse. The information here is wholly insufficient.

Posted on April 7, 2015

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