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Writer's Block : Essay Exam Standing in Way of Graduation Angers Cal State L. B. Students

March 20, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Stacey Schwartz got straight A's last semester.

A graduate student in psychology at California State University, Long Beach, she has written grant proposals and term papers. Last December she even received a letter from two of her professors commending her for, among other things, the "high quality" of her writing.

Yet Schwartz, 23, has come close to dropping out of school. Twice she has failed the essay portion of the Writing Proficiency Exam, a test she must pass before receiving her degree.

"What's the point of continuing?" she said recently in a moment of despair. "I'm not going to be a writer, I (want) to be a psychologist. This is garbage."

The test is required of all Cal State Long Beach students wishing to graduate or receive a master's degree. Yet last year only 64% of those who took it passed. For the rest, there are two alternatives. They can keep taking the writing exam, at $25 a crack, until they succeed. Or they can transfer to another campus to complete their educations.

That unrelenting fact has created a schism on the campus. On one side are administrators and faculty members who view the writing exam as a model of how universities should screen their graduates for English writing proficiency. On the other side are critics, mostly students, who say that at least half of the test is an irrelevant measure of a specific kind of writing skill, that it's graded too subjectively and in a potentially discriminatory way, and that it has far too much bearing on an individual's future.

Testing Begun in 1979

The university began administering the writing test six times a year in 1979, after the state board of trustees decreed the need to certify the writing proficiency of California State University graduates. Exactly how that was to be done was left up to each of the 19 individual campuses in the system. While most now offer students the option of taking a course or passing an exam, according to Linda Bunnell Jones, state dean for academic programs and policy studies, three campuses in addition to Long Beach--in Hayward, Pomona and Northridge--require passage of writing proficiency exams.

At Cal State Northridge, an average of 80% of the students who take the test pass it the first time, a spokesman said, while Hayward has a pass rate of 73%. Pomona's rate was 67.8% this year.

Cal State Long Beach's exam was developed over more than 1 1/2 years by a team of faculty members.

The test, which students generally take in their junior year, is in two parts. In the first, students are asked a series of objective, multiple-choice questions designed to measure general knowledge of grammar and syntax.

In the second part, they are asked to write two essays--one in 20 minutes, the other in 40--on subjects of general or personal interest chosen specifically for each exam session. Recent topics have included favorite ways of relaxing and the phenomenon of women entering professions previously reserved for men.

Students must pass both the objective and the essay portions in order to pass the Writing Proficiency Exam. While few have difficulty with the multiple-choice questions, the essays have often proven to be major stumbling blocks.

Method of Grading Criticized

Part of what makes some of the students mad, they say, is the way in which the essays are graded.

Following each exam--which may be attended by as many as 2,600 students--faculty members gather in a large room to engage in what a mimeographed informational handout calls a "holistic" grading session.

The idea, according to Eileen Lothamer, a professor of English who helped develop the exam, is to form quick "total impressions" of the essays before deciding whether to give it a pass or fail grade. Spending an average of one to four minutes on each short essay and three to five minutes on each long one, she said, readers look for organization, detail, word choice, development, completion and flow. They grade each piece on a scale of zero to six; a score of four or above is passing, Lothamer said.

Faculty readers, who serve on a voluntary basis, come from virtually all disciplines on campus. Their only preparation, according to Alice Brekke, another English professor who administers the program, is a four-hour workshop under her supervision. But the system works, she said, because it has a series of built-in checks and balances. Each essay, she said, is read independently by two readers whose combined score of 0-12 determines its ultimate disposition. Separate readers are used on each of a student's two essays. And whenever a discrepancy of more than one point occurs between the two scorers of a single essay, she said, a third reader intervenes to make the final judgment.

"We're not expecting a whole lot," said Lloyd Hile, a professor of chemical engineering who has been grading the essays for five years. "Anyone who does an adequate job in an English composition course should be able to pass this exam."

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