BROWN: Writing a new curriculum

Standardized tests are a poor gauge of writing ability

James Seitz, the director of the University’s writing program, recently asked for a re-evaluation of the current writing requirements for students in the College. Seitz questioned the usefulness of standardized test scores in determining exemptions from the first writing requirement, and announced a review over the next year of students’ writing abilities. While such a review may yield useful knowledge of the effectiveness of the University’s writing classes, Seitz should be able to see from their structure that standardized tests are poor evidence of writing ability.

High scores on several different tests are currently accepted as a replacement for the first writing requirement. The first is a score of 720 or higher on the SAT. It’s challenging to attain such a score, but the SAT is probably the least valuable writing test out there. Students are asked to write a short essay in about half an hour and answer some multiple-choice questions. Multiple choice obviously does not measure any kind of practical writing proficiency, although it may gauge a student’s knowledge of grammar. And because so many people take the test, it is impossible for the essay to be analyzed for anything beyond the appearance of competence. Use of sources, accuracy of claims and detailed analysis of opposing arguments are all skills that cannot be evaluated on a large scale, although they are crucial to college-level writing. For example, a friend of mine received a score of 11/12 on her essay in high school by inventing quotes from a fictional American philosopher. And more importantly, sophisticated writing does not occur in half an hour. It takes serious commitment to revision and reflection, which cannot occur in the SAT format.

The other standardized test score that grants an exemption is a 5 on an AP Language exam. This is certainly a superior measure of writing ability to the SAT, but is still dramatically insufficient. Students are again asked to answer some multiple-choice questions of limited utility, and are given a significantly longer period of time to write several essays. The test allows students to write a more diligently crafted essay and display more of their skills, and the format and prompts for these essays make it impossible for fabricated evidence to survive the grading process. But just like the SAT, there is simply not enough time for graders to thoughtfully evaluate proficiency. A teacher at my high school was an AP English grader for the College Board, and described the process as follows. Hundreds of graders gather and are given piles of essays. Each essay is read twice for three to five minutes and given a score from one to nine. The average of the two scores is used for each essay, and then combined with the multiple-choice results to produce a final exam score. Analyzing an essay for a total of 10 minutes is not sufficient to measure any of the college writing skills mentioned above. And while preparation for the exam often gives students some skill in organizing and quickly creating an argument, it does not provide the opportunity for students to learn to revise their work effectively and maximize the effectiveness and clarity of their arguments. The AP exam assesses a very particular kind of writing adequately, but fails to acquit students with the breadth of ability needed to excel on the college level.

Even if these tests were precise measures of writing ability — they probably do have some general predictive value — compelling more students to take the first writing requirement would still be an excellent idea. The requirement could be changed slightly to accommodate a wider variety of interests and skill levels. Maybe some mid-level courses in various departments that assign significant written work could fulfill the requirement as well, allowing talented and motivated students to push themselves a little more. But even for those who want to do the minimum or dislike written work, writing is an important skill in any professional field after college, and ensuring that every single student begins his or her University career with basic writing proficiency can only boost the job prospects of graduates. High-level classes demand the ability to write efficient, convincing and usually lengthy pieces of writing, whether it be exploring the implications of new research data or producing literary criticism. Most students come into college without the skills necessary to succeed in high-level writing courses, and ensuring that everyone — even a person with natural ability — is instructed properly should be a priority.

The review of students’ writing capabilities will hopefully result in a productive conversation about the importance of writing to the University. But regardless of the results, the administration should ensure students receive the basic skills to succeed at a high level by removing irrelevant standards for writing exemptions.

Forrest Brown is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

Published December 4, 2013 in Opinion

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