ERIC Identifier: ED345281
Publication Date: 1992-00-00
Author: Brand, Alice G.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
Writing Assessment at the College Level. ERIC Digest.
In high school, multiple-choice, short answer tests are often used as writing
exams. For several years now, however, writing specialists have agreed that,
when it comes to testing, nothing gets at writing better than writing itself.
This testing calls for evaluating writing samples. First-draft writing to a set
topic is closer to the real writing--the kind students are apt to do in college,
in graduate school, or on the job--than any multiple-choice question could
possibly be. Moreover, a fairly dependable picture of a student's writing skills
can be drawn from writing completed in anywhere from 20 (or 30) minutes (like
the SAT) to two hours. On the idea of "forewarned is forearmed," this digest
reviews writing assessment--what it means and how it works--at a selected number
of colleges and universities in the United States.
Outcomes Assessment means measuring an
individual's writing ability after writing has been studied formally. At the
college level such measures of writing skill serve important functions:
admission, placement, course equivalency, junior status, exit from courses, or
barriers to graduation. What this means is that much of what happens
academically to a student from admission to graduation can actually depend on
An effective test will not only be able to certify to a student's competency
as a freshman writer, it can also certify to writing ability as a transfer
student or a rising junior--a second semester sophomore who has completed
between 45 and 54 college credits and is entering the junior year and declaring
a major. Once into a major these writing tests can confirm skill in that major,
and/or as a graduating senior. They may even determine whether or not a student
Placement testing in writing is the first
form of outcomes assessment colleges undertake when a student arrives on campus.
Because it tells the college how well the student has learned to write in high
school, it helps identify the appropriate college writing course for him or her.
Placement testing also allows for more refined placement once the freshman
writing class begins.
For example, in large systems like City University of New York, a freshman
writing assessment may consist simply of a 50-minute placement test requiring
students to respond to one of several topics. The University of Georgia uses the
single essay for placement at three skills levels, as do technical institutes
such as the New Jersey Institute of Technology and California Polytechnic
Institute. Students entering Cal Poly take a two-part examination consisting of
an objective test as well as a placement essay.
UCLA's entry level exam includes a reading passage followed by a choice of
two questions, one based closely on the text and the other on personal
experience. SUNY (State University of New York) Geneseo's testing program, on
the other hand, works exclusively with less-prepared students. Administered by a
Language Skills Center, placement consists of a one-hour essay which screens
non-native speakers of English for an ESL course or for the one semester
required writing process course.
Placement at many community colleges is similar, collecting a writing sample
for placement into a course for less-prepared students or a standard one or two
course sequence. Along with an exam, colleges often factor into a placement
decision the student's high school average and/or the SAT verbal score and the
Test of Standard Written English (TSWE). Such a system is currently in place at
several SUNY schools, including SUNY Brockport (Brand, 1992).
PLACEMENT AND THE WRITING PROCESS
Writing a single essay
seems easy enough. But what students may not be aware of is that more and more
colleges are looking for not only what is written but how it is written. Over
the last two decades interest in the written product has widened to the writing
process. Writing specialists believe that better work is more likely to be
produced when the student is engaged in an effective process. This means that a
student's writing develops over time: time to draft ideas, receive feedback,
revise repeatedly--even scrapping parts of a piece and rewriting others--then
editing, and proofreading.
And this in turn has meant a shift in college testing. If a student has been
taught a writing process approach--now standard in many high school English
programs--a timed, single-session essay test alone is not a valid method for
evaluating writing performance. The problem is simply that what is tested is not
what is presumably taught.
The single writing sample has come under attack because it captures only the
first draft, the start of the writing process. Test essays should reflect the
conditions under which a student has been instructed. This means first drafts or
prewriting, multiple revision, and incubation or rest time--at least in classes
that emphasize process (Sanders and Littlefield, 1975).
How well a student engages in the writing process can be approximated by (1)
building revision into the single essay exam, or (2) evaluating the work by
portfolio. Let's take the first option: the single placement essay.
When a student writes a placement essay as a freshman, he or she may find
some writing process activities incorporated into the exam situation. Some
colleges announce their topic (for example, the environment) to freshmen several
weeks in advance and invite them to choose the environmental problem and its
impact on the environment and then propose a solution. They may draw on several
patterns of development (e.g., description, narration, analysis) to make their
point. And they are given time to prepare, that is, prewrite. Students may be
given several topics ahead of time.
The University of Missouri-St. Louis simulates the revision process under
test conditions by allowing less able writers to discuss a topic and prewrite on
the first day of the exam. The essays are then collected and returned to them
the next day in order to "complete" the written product.
Placement at SUNY Stony Brook is more complicated because it attempts to
compress the writing process into freshman orientation. During summer
orientation Stony Brook conducts a "regular" English composition class of two
hours for all incoming freshmen. Instead of merely completing the usual
impromptu essay, students participate in free writing, discussion, draft
writing, and peer response groups. Students also write about how they feel about
this experience, thus reflecting on the writing process itself. The final draft
is completed and used for placement in the appropriate course.
At the other end of the college
composition course the work must be evaluated. Students are certainly familiar
with a final essay exam. And to some extent that is still happening at college.
How a student wrote at the beginning of a semester can be compared with how well
he or she writes after a course of study in writing.
The principal goals of an outcomes assessment in writing is to answer these
two questions: Did the writing course actually help the student write better? If
it did, can that growth be measured? The attempt to measure the gains a student
made from a particular course may be called value-added assessment (White,
1990). Improved scores between pre- and posttests are expected to show the value
a course has had for the student. If a writing course has brought about gains,
then those gains should be observable, appearing in behaviors that can be
measured. Although many improvements in an individual's writing process take
place in the mind and are therefore not observable, what changes are inferred
from them become the value added to the individual from the course (White,
At Chicago State University students take the English Qualifying Essay Exam,
which follows a two-course sequence. Despite highly individualized classes, the
University of Southern California uses a two-hour uniform final exam consisting
of a single question based on a small group of readings. Students receive the
topic in advance but not the question, and can discuss the topic with their
instructors and fellow students. SUNY Brockport does not test skills outcomes as
such but provides a two-part final exam as an option for instructors. Some
colleges provide a final or exit exam only for students writing below their
But an increasingly popular option for judging a student's writing
performance that takes into account the writing process is the portfolio. In
portfolio assessment several representative pieces written over a given course
of study are evaluated. Depending on how the requirements are designed, the
portfolio generally brings together several pieces of writing collected at
intervals over the semester. The portfolio may even include early drafts. The
great advantage of the portfolio approach is that it emphasizes writing that
occurs over time--the process--not simply the product.
While placement at SUNY Stony Brook is based on a single essay and conducted
during freshman orientation, it operates one of the most venerable portfolio
programs in the country, having replaced the final exam with the portfolio as an
outcome measure in freshman composition a decade ago. Many schools have adapted
Stony Brook's model for their own needs, including Miami University of Ohio
which now even accepts portfolios with admission. (For the use of portfolios in
elementary and secondary schools, see Farr, 1991).
A BRIEF REMINDER
For college-bound students, here is a "quick-and-dirty" list of what writing specialists look for to determine writing
*fluency or the amount written
*quality and quantity of detail
*complexity of ideas
Writing is considered a good indication of how well a person thinks. For most
people, there is no short cut to effective thinking on paper. It is the person,
the words, and the labor between both.
Brand, Alice G. (1992) A Director of Composition
Talks to Students about College Writing Assessment. [ED 340 038]
Elbow, Peter (1973). Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University
Press. [ED 078 431]
Farr, Roger (1991). "Portfolios: Assessment in Language Arts." ERIC Digest.
Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills. [ED 334
Sanders, Sara E. and John Littlefield (1975). "Perhaps Test Essays Can
Reflect Significant Improvement in Freshman Composition: Report on a Successful
Attempt." Research in the Teaching of English 9(2), 145-53. [EJ 135 865]
White, Edward M. (1990). "Language and Reality in Writing Assessment."
College Composition and Communication 41(2), 187-200. [EJ 414 690]