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CSULB Students at commencement

Colleague to Colleague: New Options for Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement

Imagine a student who has successfully completed all degree requirements but one and who has been offered a lucrative scholarship in a graduate program. Unable to accept the scholarship because he has not earned a bachelor’s degree after six years of work, he becomes frustrated and depressed. Another student must return to his home country, where he intends to marry and begin a new job. He can return home and get married, but he will do so without a degree in hand and without a job, since the job offer is contingent upon his CSULB degree. In another case, a student is offered a job locally and even professes to have earned the degree except for one test. When her new employer discovers she has not received the degree, a deadline is set for acquiring her diploma. She fails to meet the deadline because she can’t pass the test, even though she has tried five, six or even 10 times.

New options exclusive reliance on the Writing Proficiency Exam promise dramatic results.

Unfortunately, these are not fabricated stories. Hundreds of students have left CSULB without a degree because they are unable to pass the Writing Proficiency Exam. They leave disappointed and disillusioned, often too ashamed to tell parents, family, friends or employers that their years of effort have produced such a sad outcome.

The WPE was developed in the late 1970s after The California State University established a Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement to ensure students’ writing proficiency, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Each CSU campus was free to determine an assessment method. Some campuses elected to use a test-only model, others followed a course-only model and others adopted combinations of a test and courses. Responsibility for administering the GWAR also varied from campus to campus.

Student taking a test.

The Writing Proficiency Exam consists of a 75-minute statndardized writing test.

CSULB elected to use a standardized writing test with campus-wide participation. A few adaptations led to a single-essay assessment, known as the WPE, which became the primary means by which students satisfy the GWAR. After three decades with little change, a 2004 revision to the GWAR policy opened the door to new options for meeting the requirement. As a result, CSULB is now positioned for a major shift in assessment that seems likely to impact student success.

In human terms, a shift from exclusive reliance on the high-stakes, single-essay WPE promises dramatic results. The WPE is not challenging to most native speakers of English, 93 percent of whom typically pass on their first attempt. On the other hand, the 75-minute paper/pencil essay is daunting for many non-native English speaking students—fewer than 60 percent of this group typically pass on their first attempt. Students who are unable to demonstrate writing proficiency under these high-stakes conditions can’t receive a degree, regardless of their performance in courses or other discipline-based learning outcomes assessments. Even if only a handful of students fail to graduate after having met every requirement other than the GWAR, the problem is serious.

How students can be successful in their degree programs and yet be unable to pass a 75-minute standardized writing test is a complicated issue without easy answers. Are students not required to write in their degree programs? Does the WPE not allow students to demonstrate the writing abilities they have acquired during their studies? If students were given the same resources they use in “real world” writing, such as dictionaries, word processors and grammar reference guides, not to mention time to revise and edit, would their writing be considered “proficient”? The Academic Senate committee that oversees administration of the GWAR continues to grapple with these questions, knowing that the answers may change students’ lives.

It is important to note that the WPE does have some very good qualities. Much effort goes into its development and to ensuring its scoring reliability. The test is an extremely efficient method for measuring the writing abilities of 2,000 to 3,000 students in one administration. Moreover, its scoring involves faculty from every college who utilize a standard essay rubric to read 80 to 120 papers in about a four-hour period. However, the features that account for the efficiency of the WPE also create challenges. If students provide an adequate analysis of the topic supported by a few examples written in fairly grammatical sentences, they pass. But if their writing reveals flawed mechanics and grammar not easily corrected by casual editing, they fail―regardless of how well reasoned their analysis or how interesting their examples. Since monitoring grammar under timed conditions is one of the most difficult tasks a non-native speaker of any language faces, the WPE can represent an insurmountable obstacle to graduation for bright and otherwise successful students.

CSULB has arrived at a crossroads—an exciting opportunity for change. The GWAR policy revisions approved by the Academic Senate in 2004 permit students to satisfy the GWAR in a very different way from the standardized writing test. In addition to the WPE, students can now satisfy the GWAR using writing assessments connected with approved upper-division, intensive writing courses. In the GWAR-approved courses, which may be either new or existing courses, students produce portfolios containing in-class, timed writing as well as multiple drafts of pieces they’ve revised and edited with instructor feedback. Preliminary results have been outstanding—more than 300 students, or 93 percent of those who have taken courses to satisfy the GWAR—have been successful. After repeated attempts to pass the WPE, these students succeeded in demonstrating their writing proficiency. Their despair has been transformed into success, and this is no exaggeration.

Many have contributed to these promising changes in the GWAR program. The good news is that progress will likely continue; more GWAR options are on the way. In the meantime, expanding tutoring opportunities, developing diagnostic writing tools and offering student mentoring are essential. Faculty throughout the university must infuse writing-across-the-curriculum strategies into their courses and colleges must develop more GWAR-certified courses. The campus community must continue to engage in conversations about what it means to be writing proficient at the upper division or graduate student level. Finally, we must all remain committed to student success and to the proposition that GWAR reform is one of the primary instruments for ensuring such success.