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Whether describing the plot of "The Little Mermaid," recounting a trip in a magical balloon or arguing the merits of a longer school year, American students have trouble making their point in writing.

In its latest comprehensive look at how well schoolchildren write, the Education Department said Tuesday that most students grasp the basics of narrative or informative writing but many are unable to write effectively.The 1992 "Writing Report Card" by the department's National Assessment of Educational Progress unit found some encouraging news in that schools seem to be putting more emphasis on writing instruction.

Compared with the last NAEP writing assessment in 1988, the report said, "Students are being asked to write somewhat more frequently, at greater length and in assignments requiring more analysis and interpretation."

But the report said its testing of 30,000 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders still found writing deficiencies at all three levels - and in particular in the ability to write persuasively.

"Whatever successes schools may claim in writing instruction, many students at each grade level continue to have serious difficulty in producing effective, informative, persuasive or narrative writing," the study said.

"Even the best students who could write relatively effective narrative and informative pieces had difficulty with persuasive tasks."

Urging improvements in teaching, the report said: "To become good writers, students need expert instruction, frequent practice and constructive feedback."

But it laid much of the blame for bad writing on poor study habits.

For example, the report said eighth-graders spend only two hours a week on writing - including time in the classroom - compared with more than five hours on math. And those same students spend 14 hours a week in front of the television set.

Those who watched six or more hours of television a day had the poorest writing skills, the study said. "While 83, 88, and 72 percent of the fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders, respectively, reported watching more than an hour of television daily, just 16, 27, and 31 percent reported spending more than an hour a day on their homework."

The study found that students who did not do their homework had poorer writing skills than those who did at least some of it and that those who read five or fewer pages daily did not write as well as those who read 11 or more pages a day. Twenty-three percent of the fourth-graders and one-third of the students in grades eight and 12 said they read five or fewer pages a day, including reading done in class and for homework.

The NAEP tested students on three types of writing: persuasive, in which the writer sought to exert an impact on the reader; narrative, telling a story using personal experiences, perceptions or imagination; and informative, explaining specific subject matter.

"Most students showed some grasp of the narrative form," the study said, with 55 percent to 86 percent providing at least minimally developed responses. "Encouragingly enough, about one-fourth of the fourth-graders and about one-half of the eighth- and 12th-graders wrote developed or better responses," the report said.

More difficult were the persuasive questions, including one trying to convince a member of the state legislature that students who receive failing grades either should or shouldn't lose their driving licenses.

Some of the report's other findings:

- White and Asian students generally outperformed black, Hispanic and American Indians at all three grade levels.

- Girls wrote more effectively than boys at all three grade levels.

- Eighth- and 12th-graders in the Southeast had weaker writing skills than students in other regions at those grade levels.

- Private school students did better than public school students.