“Learning to write is part of a liberal arts education, and we don’t want people graduating without that knowledge,” said Sally Jordan, associate professor of English.
In that spirit, all Albion students are required to take the Writing Competence Exam (WCE) in order to graduate.
The college instituted the WCE to ensure that students left Albion as able writers when English Composition (ENGL 101) was removed as a requirement for graduation in the early 70’s as a result of cuts to the English Department. Barring those who received a 4 or 5 on the CEEB AP English test in high school, all Albion students are required to take the WCE, preferably by the middle of their sophomore year. Jordan has been involved with writing the test prompts and grading the exams for 15 years.
“It’s a safety net,” Jordan said. “The idea was that they would catch the students who really need help with their writing.”
Although he believes that a portfolio system would be a more effective model for evaluating student writing, Scott Hendrix, director of writing and director of the academic skills center, believes the WCE is an efficient way to identify students who require additional writing instruction, even if those students don’t realize it.
“Few students are pleased when they fail the WCE, but those students who want to write more effectively sometimes find themselves glad in the end to have been caught,” Hendrix said.
The test is designed to gauge students’ basic command over language mechanics and argumentation skills. Students are given a variety of statements related to the college or current events and asked to agree or disagree with them. They have two hours to fill up at least five bluebook pages with their argument.
“It’s a low hurdle that all students should be able to jump over in order to graduate from Albion, not an occasion to do your best writing,” Hendrix said. “It asks students if they have an understanding of mechanics, evidence, support, clarity and focus.”
Students are marked down for both sentence-level mistakes and larger problems like flaws in reasoning.
“A paper is probably not going to pass if it’s extremely illogical or if there is no evidence to support the assertion,” Jordan said. “You can also fail if you have a number of sentence fragments, a number of subject-verb disagreements, or a number of mixed constructions.”
After grading the exams for so long, Jordan has noticed a decline in the quality of student writing.
“I’d say between a quarter and a third of them fail, usually, and our standards are pretty low,” Jordan said.
Possible culprits, she thinks, may be poor writing instruction in high school, a decline in recreational reading and texting because of the tendencies to ignore grammatical rules and the altered spellings.
“I’ve noticed problems lately that I have never seen before, like students not knowing which preposition to use, like using ‘on’ when you need ‘of,'” Jordan said. “I never used to see ‘then’ and ‘than’ confused, and now I see it all the time, as if students think it’s the same word.”
Even some students are recognizing that they are unprepared for college writing. Despite having had an in-depth writing class in high school, Ryan Sweeney, Midland freshman, admits that writing is a challenge for him.
“I think I’m a horrible writer,” Sweeny said. “It just doesn’t come to me as quickly as it used to.”
Sweeny plans to take Comp. 101 in order to improve his writing skills.
Fortunately for some, students can take the WCE as many times as they require. However, those who fail a second time are sent to Scott Hendrix for help with their writing.
According to Hendrix, many students fail the exam due to extenuating circumstances like illness while others just don’t take the test seriously, but a few students who come to him need serious help with writing. Hendrix recalls one student who, though he excelled in most of his classes, could not differentiate between a noun and a verb.
Though it’s an effective tool for catching ineffective writers, the WCE is not the college’s only attempt to ensure solid writing foundations. Hendrix and Jess Roberts, associate professor of English, have been trying to push writing-intensive first-year seminars. The duo offered workshops this summer for faculty members wanting to implement writing in their classes across the curriculum.
“We want these courses to be writing courses that lead not only to better writing in that class, but subsequent classes as well,” Hendrix said.
Students seeking information on the WCE, such as upcoming test dates and the online form for test registration, should check out the WCE webpage within the Albion College English Department (http://www.albion.edu/english/writing-competence-exam). For the procrastinators out there, students who have accumulated 14 or more units but have not taken the WCE will be forced to register for classes as a sophomore. Proactive students who want to improve their writing are encouraged to visit the Writing Center, located in the Academic Skill Center on the second floor of the Mudd Library.
Sally Jordan’s Tips for Success on the WCE
- Use your two hours wisely. Brainstorm, do pre-writing exercises and do a rough draft or an outline before attempting the final draft.
- Clearly define your thesis.
- Bring a dictionary (because spelling counts and big words make you sound smart).
- Be creative with your arguments.
- Avoid hackneyed phrases—if you’re writing about baseball, do not mention the words “national pastime” anywhere in your essay.
Photo by Dr. Sally Jordan