In other words, we can't really compare these test scores to the last writing report card in 2007 when 33 percent of eighthgrade students and 24 percent of 12thgraders scored at the proficient level using only a pencil and paper. But feel free to put two and two together. On the bright side, I suppose, the majority of students tested fell into the basic category - 54 percent of eighth-graders and 52 percent of 12th-graders - which means they were able to persuade, explain or convey experience coherently and with substantial knowledge of the basic mechanics of writing, though with errors that don't generally impede meaning. I don't have enough space to bore you with a laundry list of the many ways society in general (rampant misspellings in product names and advertisements), families (who inadvertently provide children with language-poor environments) and schools (which let instructors teach writing in many different ways) keep students from learning to write effectively. But I think it comes down to much the same reason we have a nation of poor readers, and underperforming math, science and history students: These subjects are hard and no one likes hard work anymore. Though we pay lip service to working hard, most students are subtly taught to avoid it. We drill kids with the idea that learning should be fun and show them videos so that they don't have to trudge through texts to understand meanings of challenging concepts. We teach them the language of inability by assuring them that if they are being challenged by a difficult reading passage, it must be because they are "visual learners," or if they don't like tackling tasks on their own they must be "social learners" - and everyone knows that if we push kids, parents will have no qualms about pushing back. Let's face it, education today is a perfect reflection of our modern lives, which are predicated on convenience and optimized for entertainment. Teacher preparation programs spend more time showing future teachers how to nurture and accommodate than how to make students into high performers. But though I already fear for a country where the most important thing in the average person's life is to interact with electronic gadgets that emphasize images and make it nearly impossible to type words - much less sentences - correctly, there is a sliver of hope. The 24 percent of eighth- and 12thgraders who can write proficiently - plus the 3 percent who are "advanced" - will be the rock stars of their generation. Their hard-earned mastery of the arduous written communication of English will be rewarded as they become as sought out and well-compensated as doctors, computer gurus and scientists are today. In this utopia, they'll somehow inspire future generations to work hard to write well, too.