Practice needed for writing exam

Dr. Pamela Bourgeois

I am pleased that the Daily Sundial has given so much press to the new Writing Proficiency Examination. The sooner students hear about the WPE, or are reminded that they must pass it before they can graduate, the better for all of us.

However, I must point out several misconceptions in Paul Castillo’s editorial and in Jillian Ballard’s article. Mr. Castillo’s description of the exam as a regurgitation of information from the article that the students must read is not correct. As a matter of fact, the first part of the 75-minute exam does ask the writers to identify the main points of the text’s argument. However, writers must then construct an argument about the topic, using information from their own background reading and experience. Those essays that simply rehash the material or the arguments in the article do not pass.

Another misconception made by Ms. Ballard concerns who must take English 090, the course for those students who have difficulty passing this exam. After failing the WPE twice, students are invited to enroll in English 090, a course that indeed is designed to help students pass this requirement for graduation.

And finally, the workshops which all students are encouraged to take prior to sitting for the exam are free, and provide good practice for some students who have not had much required writing in their own disciplines. Trained writing consultants lead these workshops about constructing an academic argument, and remind students about essay forms and conventions. While some “practice tests” may be scored, usually common writing problems are identified and then addressed in the workshop. These workshops are not meant as classes, but rather as review sessions.

And I would like to remind Mr. Castillo, and the campus community as well, that the faculty readers of the WPE realize that they are scoring rough drafts. Since this is an impromptu writing assignment, and since the writers have no time to make real revisions, we read the essays holistically, matching the student writing to a scoring guide developed for this purpose.

The WPE is the upper division writing requirement. It is not a class. After completing 56 units of college level work, the assumption is that most students will be able to write adequately. I agree with Mr. Castillo that it is unfortunate that some of our students still have difficulty with their writing skills. Writing is not something that one can learn once and for all. Perhaps it can be compared to a physical skill. Without practice, one’s tennis serve weakens; one’s piano-playing skill deteriorates. Students take their first year composition course in their freshman year, but that course is just their introduction to academic writing. Students need the opportunity to practice and to improve their writing within their own majors throughout their college career.

It is university policy that general education courses require a significant amount of writing. Unfortunately, we do not have courses on writing in each major discipline. That would be the ideal. Accountants could learn the rhetorical exigencies of writing in their discipline, and biologists, chemists, artists, mathematicians, and computer scientists would all learn how professionals communicate in their chosen fields.

Until we make that decision, and commitment of university resources, the Writing Proficiency Exam at least reminds the university community that writing is important and that this skill is one that can be maintained only by constant practice.