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Entrance testing is not the answer

University students need to learn to write for different disciplines and assignments, and testing the skills they learned in high school isn’t relevant to what they will need to learn.

by Roger Graves and David Slomp

We commend Nicholas Dion and Vicky Maldonado for calling for assessments of university students’ writing (“We need to assess student literacy skills”) in University Affairs. We agree with their argument that without these assessments, universities will face budget cuts and students have no way of proving their worth as writers. However, we disagree that entrance testing at the university level will contribute to solving this problem.

In a series of conferences we’ve organized in Alberta over the last two years, we have talked with more than 100 high school teachers, university instructors and administrators about the transition from high school writing to university writing. One clear finding from these conversations is that testing – at least, the large scale “standards-based” testing suggested by Dion and Maldonado – is not the answer.

The problem with this type of writing assessment is that it is built upon the mistaken idea that knowledge about writing is a-contextual: that the ability to compose in an artificial, time-constrained, impromptu testing situation can generalize to writing across other tasks in other contexts. Decades of research shows us that writing ability is highly contextualized and that what constitutes “good writing” differs widely from discipline to discipline. The skills needed to write a polished first draft in an exam situation are very different from the skills required to understand and respond to the values and expectations of the academic communities that students are writing themselves into.

Research into the consequences of large-scale writing assessment on education in Canada has shown that, given the stakes associated with them, these assessments focus students on developing the limited skill sets required for success on these exams, rather than on developing the broader set of skills and understandings necessary for success at the postsecondary level. As a consequence, too many students leave high school believing (because this is what preparing for the standardized writing tests has taught them) that their mastery of the five-paragraph essay has set them up for success in their university writing. Many of them struggle when they find out that this is not the case.

In their first year of university, students are likely to face a wide array of writing tasks (see the chart below). Few of these writing tasks were taught in high school courses. A student taking a five-course load at university could easily write 10 to 15 assignments per term, or 20 to 30 documents in first year. Many of these types of assignments will be new to them, so a crucial “literacy skill” will be to decode the instructions they receive for the assignments and then marshal the appropriate resources to complete these various tasks.

The specific tools they will need include library research skills and citation or referencing system knowledge – skills usually developed at university. They will also need to read quickly and deeply before transforming what they have read into knowledge appropriate for their course of study; to some extent this skill will be developed before they enter university.

As they progress through their degrees, the nature, number and kind of assignments they are asked to complete will become more complex, more varied and situated in a field of knowledge. To some extent, their instructors and their departments will furnish this knowledge; libraries, writing centres and, to a lesser extent, writing courses will also help them learn to create these documents.

At present, few universities assess the writing of their students when they graduate. In some isolated instances (the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication program at Western University, for example), students must complete a portfolio of their written work as part of a capstone exercise. Unlike the standardized assessments recommended by Dion and Maldonado, this type of writing assessment reflects the contextualized nature of writing. Designed well, these assessments encourage students to develop the skills and understandings they need for the academic or professional communities they are studying to enter.

These written portfolios serve important purposes: they provide qualitative proof of the writing ability of the student who produced them; and the documents can form part of the basis for employment interviews and graduate school applications. More importantly, they are a very good assessment of how well that student can use language to communicate with various audiences.

Some writing assignments in the first year

  Liberal arts Political science Service-learning Nursing PE
Average # of writing assignments per first-year course 3 1.4 10 3.4 2.5
Abstract     X    
Assignment X       X
Bibliography X   X    
Blog     X    
Book review X        
Business letter   X      
Draft X   X    
Essay X X X    
Field notes     X    
Field report     X    
Group email     X X  
Group report          
Handout     X X X
In-class essay X        
Journal     X   X
Lab report X       X
Lesson plan         X
Log         X
Marketing report          
Mind map     X    
Outline     X   X
Paper   X X X X
Peer evaluation X     X  
Personal goals       X  
Presentation X   X X X
Proposal X   X    
Report X       X
Self-evaluation       X  
Summary X       X

Roger Graves is director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Alberta. David Slomp is an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge.

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Comments on this Article

I wonder why we at the university sometimes seem to expect the public school system to turn out students having more than basic literacy and numeracy skills. It takes a lot of work to learn to write well, and I see nothing wrong with leaving that teaching task to us in the university.

The Writing Across the Curriculum program provided at the U of A under the direction of Roger Graves is a fabulous resource. Any student who doesn't take advantage of it has no cause for complaint.

To what extent are there similar programs elsewhere?

Posted by Reuben Kaufman, Dec 20, 2013 12:23 AM

Thanks to Roger Graves and David Slomp for their compelling argument against Dion and Maldonado's proposal in favour of university writing entrance testing. The issue of student writing (and reading and communication skills)is one that merits more attention than it often gets. In response to Hultin's comment, however, there is a century-long history of complaints comparing current students' writing abilities to previous generations -- none of which bear up under scrutiny. In 1874, Harvard first implemented writing entrance tests to deal with this concern, and to my knowledge they have yet to solve the problem of students' poor writing. As a writing researcher and manager of a university writing centre, I agree wholeheartedly with Graves and Slomp that focusing attention on students' writing development over the entire course of their university programs is a more valid and useful exercise to ensure students graduate with the literacy skills we deem appropriate.

Posted by Boba Samuels, Dec 19, 2013 9:25 AM

Unfortunately, the problems that bedevil freshman composition are those not addressed in the final two years of secondary school: grammar, usage, idiom, and fluency. Trying to sound profound and academic, freshman writers resort to the awkward periphrasis of the passive voice, absurd overgeneralisations, and poorly supported arguments. Since writing is indeed contextual used, any sort of large-scale assessment of writing skills is not going to uncover problems with writing anything than the standard, five-paragraph essay; however, if well designed and competently graded for feedback to the writer, such an assessment might well compel our weakest writers to seek help at the campus writing centre, whose function should not merely be to edit bad writing but to make weak writers into competent, autonomous, and fluent writers in whatever forms their course of studies requires.

Posted by Philip V. Allingham, Ph.nd., Dec 18, 2013 1:27 PM

This commentary argues that entrance tests of incoming students' writing skills have no validity. I think the authors are over-simplifying the question. They focus on the (important) intellectual aspect of university writing, and I agree that standardized entrance tests don't seem very relevant to this.

There is, however, another issue that entrance tests of writing can help with. That is, whether incoming students can even cope with the mechanics of presenting a coherent thought in grammatical English. Before we worry about whether they grasp the different modes of discourse and argument needed to write a book review versus a blog post, we should ensure that they can write a sentence correctly.

This used to be a given, when students were taught grammar and tested on spelling in primary grades. Universities can no longer assume that incoming students have these competencies, and since resources are limited, perhaps some form of entrance testing would allow remedial instruction to be delivered where it is most necessary. I would not be so quick to throw out the concept of entrance testing.

Posted by Philip Hultin, Dec 18, 2013 12:50 PM


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