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The Folly of Weakening the Analytical Writing Placement Examination and Promoting Directed Self-Placement

September 15, 2018

We need to take history into account when we hear any proposal to change the University of California’s Entry-Level placement system for composition. That history begins with the early years of the University. It emerges from the University of California’s conception of itself. UC was formed, and continues to be formed, by the people of California and the idea—filtered through various levels of UC Senate deliberation and administrative policy—that UC is a public and elite institution, shaped by a sometimes unsettled and dynamic combination of those founding characteristics. This university is pre-eminent in being both accessible and exclusive, democratic and elitist, responsible to the state’s legislature and its taxpayers yet dedicated to the highest level of academic achievement in undergraduate and graduate education as well as research.  

As the UC Berkeley rhetorician and historian Jane Stanley has written, this tension and interaction of sometimes competing goals has manifested itself most instructively in the University’s writing standards, which since the late nineteenth century have helped it navigate a sea of challenges. The public’s demand that UC accommodate ever larger numbers of undergraduates is as old as this institution. So is the University of California’s insistence upon excellence in teaching and research. Consequently, the standards for the writing proficiency of entering freshmen have been, she writes, “a political phenomenon as much as an educational phenomenon” throughout the UC’s history (Stanley, 141). If the University of California’s core public duty has been to mediate competing demands for access and rigor, it can be said that its writing programs have shouldered much of that task. They have been created, tested, and sustained by its demands.

For almost the entire history of the University, some form of the UC entry-level writing requirement has played a key role in the University’s mission. In the early days, the Academic Senate’s Committee on Schools started visiting its feeder high schools and reviewing students’ work in order to enforce college-level academic expectations. A Joint Affiliation Committee was soon created, through which representatives of the schools met with University faculty to improve students’ preparation to meet the requirement. UC Matriculation examinations were administered to follow up. Early in the twentieth century, a more formalized Subject A essay examination, requiring an essay of at least 400 or 500 words, was administered to all entering UC students. The first dedicated Subject A examination was offered in 1898. By 1905, Subject A exams were given to all admitted students and evaluated by a Senate-appointed committee.

A detailed articulation of the Subject A Requirement—what today we call, in its revised form, the Entry-Level Requirement—was passed by that era’s equivalent of the Systemwide Academic Senate in 1922. After years of debate and experimentation (including occasional efforts, which were voted down, to make Subject A requirement for entrance rather than matriculation), all UC students were required to take, upon registration, an examination “designed to test their ability to write English.” Those who did not pass were not allowed to enroll in the equivalent of English 1A until they took an extra course in Subject A. No student was allowed to receive a BA degree without passing the Subject A requirement.

In the 1930s, there were occasional suggestions to reduce the examination to a test of spelling and grammar. For a number of years, a fifteen-minute grammar and punctuation quiz accompanied the essay portion of the exam. But efforts to convert the test entirely to a grammar quiz were turned back by those who believed that the change would lower academic standards in more advanced writing courses, giving the high schools the misleading message that proficient writing amounted to accurate punctuation and grammar-school correctness. As documented in Loaz Johnson’s 1941 history of the requirement, the University’s work with the schools persisted for decades on a higher level (Johnson, passim). Its writing standards for entering freshmen continued to influence high-school preparation.

Subject A since 1941 has continued to lead what we have come to call “a much-examined life.” Taken as a whole, that history has led to improvements in the exam and the articulation of the requirement. Over a hundred years of work by the UC Systemwide Senate and local campus senates has produced a legacy of debate and consensus. Systemwide Senate legislation has led the way. To strengthen Entry-Level instruction in the University, the Turner-Martin report of 1972 recommended the granting of credit for Subject A courses and the abolition of extra fees (Stanley, 5-6, 109-111). The 1981 Systemwide UCEP report on assisting underprepared students in math and English helped lead, in 1985, to the Systemwide Analytical Writing Placement Examination, which restored the unified testing that prevailed before the founding of seven additional UC campuses in the 1950s and 60s (Stanley, 117-124, 140-141).

In the late 1970s, UC Berkeley’s Jim Grey, the founder of the California Writing Project, won funding from the California legislature for a university-based, teacher-centered organization to improve high-school outcomes. He used evidence from the Subject A testing program to make his case. There are now dozens of Writing Project in California and hundreds across the country offering summer institutes, workshops, and inservice training to thousands of teachers each year. The UCOP website now displays updated UC Entry-Level readiness data for every California high school.

Before entering the University of California, students can pass the Entry-Level Requirement by a variety of means regulated by the Systemwide Academic Senate. The three most popular are the SAT (680 or above), Advanced Placement (a 3, 4, or 5), and the Analytical Writing Placement Examination. Approximately 15,000 entering UC students take the AWPE each year. In the last thirty-two years, the AWPE has been administered to almost half a million students. The examinations are selected and approved by various committees of the Systemwide Academic Senate, which also oversees the assessment. Students who have not passed the requirement upon entrance are placed in Senate-approved courses on their local campuses. Using the AWPE scoring guide, sample essays, and other resources, the University continues to work with the schools, most notably through the UC-based California Writing Project’s ISAW workshops and UC Riverside’s High-School Visitation Program.

At UC Riverside, the Entry-Level Requirement and the AWPE have been, for forty years, powerful influences on writing instruction in the feeder high schools, our full array of composition courses, and our program in Writing Across the Curriculum involving the campus’s four colleges. In all our work with WAC TAs and faculty across campus, the EWLR proficiency standard has proven to be a credible and useful source of guidance in resisting grade inflation. When we look at students’ responses to particular assignments in Political Science, History, Comparative Literature, Philosophy, Anthropology, Business Writing, Physics, the AWPE precedent provides language and concepts that we adapt for realistic assessments of students’ progress.

The most important strength of the Entry-Level standard is that it measures what it claims to measure: writing and reading proficiency, which for generations has been the activating concern of the requirement, the exam, and courses for those who do not pass the exam. The exam requires students to write in response to a question about a 700-word sample of academic prose. Our assessment of the result is a measure that speaks to faculty, administrators, high schools, the public, and most of all to our students. Creative writing assignments and multiple-choice standardized examinations cannot perform these functions.

There are those who say that these essays, and indeed academic essays in general, are not authentic or “real world” assignments, and that therefore the AWPE is a misleading measure, a figment of the imagination. I do not think that the dozens of WAC faculty members from departments across our campus would agree. They assign academic essays to students who have passed English 1A and 1B, and they welcome the assistance of our WAC workshops and TA-training sessions. The AWPE-influenced textbook we use in WAC, Techniques of College Writing, is the outcome of a survey of academic writing across the disciplines, from lab reports to term papers, which is based on the finding that writing across the curriculum has a number of significant commonalities, many of which are related to the standards and expectations set by the UC Entry-Level Requirement and the AWPE.  

The proposal to weaken the influence of the AWPE by counting mediocre scores on the SAT runs counter to our experience at UCR. It ignores the history of the University of California. The SAT is not a writing exam. Only a high-level score bears a resemblance to AWPE performance, and those scores are increasingly subject to gaming by electronic means. A retreat from actual writing assessment invites indifference to academic quality. It leads to the idea that students should place themselves.

We hear now from some quarters that we should embrace “guided self-placement.” I do not find it possible to view that alternative, however well-intentioned, to be anything but an unacknowledged repeal of UC’s Entry-Level Requirement. It would render the Analytical Writing Placement Examination irrelevant. At bottom, there is nothing required in “directed self-placement” except student choice. Campuses that have tried the system report that most students opt out of their campus-recommended placement. Under such a system, testing becomes irrelevant. A soon-to-be-published study of directed self-placement in a large Texas university suggests that even the modest correlation between SAT scores and students’ directed placement based on a writing exam disappears in a DSP system. The Cal State system’s directed placement system, which entailed such byzantine directions the CSU Chancellor resolved to do away with testing and extra coursework completely, was the conscientious work of CSU faculty members trying vainly to make an unworkable DSP system function effectively.

The CSU failure to find a compromise between self-placement and directed placement is now playing out in the newspapers. The University of Michigan’s self-placement system, which some would hold up as a model, is a Potemkin Village: it fails to direct 80% of the students who use it into the recommended course. According to a report presented at UC Irvine last fall, the average GPA in Michigan’s equivalent of English 1A is “A-“ for students who disregard their recommended placement. Students needing intensive ESL instruction who sign up for English 1A average “B+.”  For now, grade inflation saves appearances.

To those who would say “Let’s find out what happens with self-placement by studying students’ grades at the end of the term,” I cannot help but ask, “What about the well-documented history of powerful forces pushing grade inflation in the high schools and in most institutions of higher education, where the most common grade is now an “A,” and the “C” is headed for the dust-bin? Should we disregard the admirable fact that UC’s overall average GPA for undergraduates has resisted the national trend? To those who say there would be safe-guards—perhaps by means of a quarterly series of norming sessions and sober words to instructors about grading accurately—I cannot help but wonder why they are so anxious to do away with the challenge of teaching capable yet struggling students to write at the college level.

To those who say grades do not matter anyway in the final analysis, I ask how, over the long-term, my campus could sustain a large and successful writing program if the UC System did away with the Entry-Level Requirement, which is its most important measure to resist grade inflation in composition. Lacking the Entry-Level Requirement, we would see English 1A devolve into an Entry-Level course. The entire composition sequence would be compromised by the continuous need for catch-up instruction.

I don’t have time to go over the impact the requirement’s repeal would have on our work in the schools. I can say only this. Over the years, hundreds of teachers and principals have responded positively to our campus’s outreach based on the ELWR requirement. They have worked with us to help their students meet its rigorous expectations, whatever college they choose to enter. We have found that some superintendents are embarrassed by proficiency testing, especially when it comes from higher education. They would like to see it disappear. They would prefer not to be scrutinized by the ELWR’s sometimes embarrassing measures of their students’ progress in writing. Without the ELWR, unfortunately, conscientious teachers and principals would be under greater pressure to ignore meaningful test results. They would have much less incentive to persist in our cooperative efforts. Without meaningful writing standards that determine placement, the University of California and the Writing Project would have far less leverage for influencing the teaching of writing in the high schools.

We must not be indifferent to the consequences these proposed changes would create for our principles as well as our practice. Such changes would undermine instruction by encouraging social promotion. They would jeopardize our writing programs’ credibility. They would undermine our work in the schools. What might look like a practical change would in actuality be a repeal of the Entry-Level Requirement, a loss doubly regrettable because it would defy principles deep in this university’s heart and structure. Our friends across campus would begin to doubt us. So, most certainly, would opinion leaders beyond the campus walls.

We must continue to examine what we do. At the same time, we must not presume to dispense with our institution’s deep-rooted history of balancing and entwining competing principles, a history that has allowed the University to prevail over repeated challenges to its complex mission as a pre-eminent, excellence-seeking public university. Is it an accident that the University of California, the best public university in the world, has maintained such a system while lesser institutions have fallen away?

If I have misunderstood anything in the various ideas and proposals for changing what we have done so successfully for so many years, I hope our discussions here and elsewhere will set me right. Our students’ lives, and the life of this institution, will be influenced by what we say and do about these things. May good sense prevail.


Works Cited

Johnson, L. The Administrative Function in the University of California: Examination in Subject A. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941.

Stanley, Jane. The Rhetoric of Remediation. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.


About the Author: John Briggs is Professor of English and Director of the University Writing Program at the University of California at Riverside. An earlier version of this article was delivered at the UC Irvine Writing Conference, October 6-7, 2017.