New writing director to re-evaluate writing requirement exemptions

Survey will aim to address whether standardized test-based exemptions should stand

James Seitz, new director of the University’s writing program, has called for a re-evaluation of the College’s first writing requirement, specifically focusing on whether they should keep exemptions for students on the basis of standardized test scores.

Seitz’s office will conduct a survey of the general student writing ability next year as part of the evaluation process.

“We’re currently planning how to go about this in a way that will provide us with better information about what students are getting from their experience as writers in U.Va. courses,” Seitz said.

Currently, the College requires all students to complete their first writing course by the end of their first year. The English department offers dozens English writing seminars — or ENWRs — on a variety of topics — ranging from music and popular culture to religion.

Students may bypass the first writing requirement if they score a 720 or higher on the SAT writing section, if they are an Echols scholar, if they score a 5 on the AP English language subject test, or if they earn an exemption through a portfolio review.

Seitz raised concerns specifically about using SAT scores as a measure of students’ writing abilities.

“I can imagine some very thoughtful and imaginative writers who might do poorly on such a test,” Seitz said. “And I can also imagine some not-so-thoughtful writers doing quite well by writing a formulaic five-paragraph theme essay that wouldn’t get better than a ‘C’ in a college writing class.”

Seitz noted that several Ivy League universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Yale, don’t exempt students from a writing requirement, despite having a highly capable student body.

Michael Timko, director of the Echols Scholars Program, also questioned the use of SAT to measure students’ abilities. However, he says the practice is a means of compromise.

“I am also doubtful of the accuracy of standardized test to work across the board … [but] it is one measure and can be generally predictive in the absence of something better,” Timko said.

For Echols students, the writing requirement is not the best way to ensure they are making the most of their University education, Timko said.

“There is no assessment of writing ability done by the [Echols] program per se,” Timko said. “Encouraging students to seek means for improvement and developing in them an understanding of why developing proper writings skills are valuable will likely work better than establishing across-the-board requirements.”

Published December 2, 2013 in FP test, News

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