ODU Scraps Writing-Proficiency Exam Requirement

April 6, 2012

Old Dominion University has scrapped its requirement that students pass a writing-proficiency test to graduate, saying it never helped many of them become better writers.

The school had required the Exit Examination of Writing Proficiency for 35 years. The three-hour writing test evaluated logical consistency, adequate supporting evidence, sentence-structure clarity, word choice and mechanical errors.

This spring, ODU scrapped the exam, which students were allowed to take as many times as needed to pass. About one-quarter of test-takers failed on the first try, a statistic that didn't significantly improve over time.

A recent survey showed that 70 percent of ODU's faculty rated students' ability to communicate effectively in writing as fair or poor.

In 1977, ODU President Alfred Rollins told the university's faculty that too many ODU graduates were unable to write clearly and correctly. He said the university was going to do something about it by requiring that students pass a writing-proficiency exam in order to graduate. It was believed to be the only one of its kind at Virginia's public colleges and universities.

But test results continued to reflect the fact that students weren't becoming better writers, which was the test's stated goal.

"The exam wasn't really working," Provost Carol Simpson said. In its place, the university has embedded writing requirements throughout the curriculum to give students a more intensive writing experience. Students will now be required to earn at least a C in two lower-level English writing courses and an upper-level "writing-intensive" course in their major.

ODU also has beefed up support services in the campus Writing Center and is launching workshops to teach faculty members better techniques for teaching and assessing writing.

Virginia Wesleyan College eliminated its writing exit exam three years ago.

"There was increasing research backing up that this kind of test does not really measure students' abilities," said Lisa Carstens, an English professor and associate dean at the private college.

The exit exam was an on-demand, out-of-context writing experience that didn't elicit students' best work, Carstens told The Virginian-Pilot.

"Students write measurably better when they are authentically engaged in what they want to say," she said. "They have to care about it. There's something very artificial about handing them some questions and expecting them to write at their best."

At ODU, the writing exit exam is still an option for students.

But junior Kirstie Burton says she'll opt out. The dental hygiene and biology major says she's "ecstatic" to be freed from the requirement.

"I'm far from an English major — probably as far as they come," she said. "It makes me very happy."

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