Using computers widens the achievement gap in writing, a federal study finds

Low-performing fourth-graders do poorly in writing tests given by computer, but high-performing students do better

Photo of Jill Barshay

Education by the Numbers

Can elementary-school children show off their best writing on a computer? The research arm of the U.S. Department of Education was curious to learn just that. In 2012 it handed out laptop computers to more than 10,000 fourth-graders and asked them to complete two 30-minute writing assignments.

Initial results from the study were positive: most of the young students were able complete the writing assignments and use the editing tools. Soon after, states began rolling out new Common Core-aligned tests that included online writing components. Last year, more than half of U.S. states gave computer-based writing tests to children as young as third-graders. Some wrote their paragraphs with a pencil and paper; the majority used a computer.

But a new, deeper analysis of the 2012 writing pilot, released to the public in December 2015, found more complicated results. It compared the computer-written essays with a pencil-and-paper test given to fourth graders two years earlier, in 2010.  High-performing students did substantially better on the computer than with pencil and paper. But the opposite was true for average and low-performing students. They crafted better sentences using pencil and paper than they did using the computer. Low-income and black and Hispanic students tended to be in this latter category.

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced.  They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.

But these high achievers were in the minority. More than two-thirds of fourth-graders’ responses received scores in the bottom half of a 6-point scoring scale that rated grammar and writing quality. Overall, the average fourth-grader typed a total of 110 words per assignment, far less than the 159-word average on the 2010 paper test.

One weakness of this research is that the 2010 students who wrote with pencil and paper were a different group than the 2012 students who wrote on a computer. So we don’t know if some of the best computer drafters might have written even better essays by hand, for example. It’s also possible that the 2012 high performers were much stronger writers than the 2010 high performers. Or, conversely, perhaps the weak kids of 2012 were far weaker than their 2010 counterparts. But these scenarios are far-fetched, and with such a large sample of students — from both public and private schools, and adjusted to mirror the nation’s demographics — we can put some stock into the results.

Steve Graham, a professor at Arizona State University and an expert in research on writing instruction, says the federal report confirms what smaller studies previously found. “Your familiarity with the tool makes a difference,” said Graham. “They actually do better writing by hand if they’re less experienced [with computers]. And if they’re more experienced, then there may actually be an advantage toward writing on the computer.”

Graham says research evidence shows that a computer is ultimately a superior tool to write with because it makes it easier to move words around, or replace and delete them. So it’s not surprising that a student who can already type well (some fourth graders could type as fast as 25 words a minute), and is comfortable with copy-and-paste commands, might produce a better essay on the computer than by hand.

By contrast, a child who is typing very slowly may find his ideas more likely to slip away from his working memory before he can type them out on the computer. The average typing speed for a fourth-grader was a slow 12 words per minute. Some typed as a few as four words per minute. “If you’re very slow at producing text, it has consequences for writing,” said Graham.

Of course, the hand is never fast enough to keep up with the mind. Students who write by hand can also lose their train of thought. But if you’re slower at typing than you are at writing by hand, then more ideas can slip away in a computer assessment.

Graham argues that schools should try to spend a “short amount of time” teaching young students how to type on a keyboard and edit, along with giving them regular opportunities to compose on a computer. One problem, he notes, is that most adult keyboards are too large for small children’s hands. So schools may need to invest in smaller keyboards.

To my surprise, even some hand-writing advocates support the teaching of typing to young kids. University of Washington Professor Virginia Berninger, for example, has been an outspoken advocate of maintaining cursive writing instruction in schools because of the neurological benefits to the developing brain.  But now she argues for both. “We have started doing touch-typing training for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders and we’re seeing benefits,” she said, referring to recent research experiments.

“Instead of having them hunt and peck around, why not teach them keyboarding correctly from the beginning?” she added. “If we’re going to give them the annual test by computer, by golly, teach them how to use the computer. It’s not fair if we don’t.”

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

This article also appeared here.


Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay, a contributing editor, writes a weekly column, Education By The Numbers, about education data and research. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive

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