U debates using ACT writing section

Amy Horst

Representatives from the University Senate are debating whether future applicants to the University should write an essay as part of their ACT tests.

The University Senate Educational Policy Committee discussed Wednesday whether the University should require or recommend that students take a written portion of the ACT that will be offered starting in February 2005.

The ACT, a standardized test the University and other colleges use in admissions decisions, decided to offer an optional writing section in response to growing controversy over standardized tests’ ability to measure students’ academic potential.

The test currently offers multiple-choice sections in math, science, reading and English. The proposed written portion would be part of the English section, and schools can decide whether to use the test in admissions decisions.

If a high school student is planning to apply only to universities that do not require a written portion, he or she would not have to take the written test.

At the committee meeting, Karen Seashore, a professor in the department of educational policy and administration, said many students might have learning problems that give them more difficulty with writing than with other skills currently measured by the ACT.

“We put students who are going to be successful in college, and these could be students who have writing deficiencies or maybe even an undiagnosed learning disorder,” Seashore said.

However, she said, the writing test could be a valuable tool for identifying students who need to improve their writing skills, if students who do poorly on the writing portion are admitted to the University and then placed in remedial writing classes, such as those in the General College.

Ed Colby, a spokesman for ACT, said the ACT makes accommodations for people with disabilities, but they must have documented evidence of a disability. Colby said ACT has not decided on how it will change accommodations for the writing test.

Joel Weinsheimer, a professor in the English department, said at the committee meeting that the advantages of a written test outweigh the disadvantages.

“I do think this is important,” Weinsheimer said. “There is no other way to assess the quality of students’ writing other than to see their writing.”

Thomas Augst, a professor of English and member of the University Senate, did not share Weinsheimer’s enthusiasm.

“People have been discussing whether writing can be tested for years and years,” Augst said at the meeting. “It’s just not clear that you can reliably measure these things on some type of standardized test.”

Karl Carlson, a senior at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minn., who has taken the ACT three times, said that he is not confident the ACT provides a complete picture of how successful a student will be because it cannot test qualities such as leadership.

“If the ACT decides to test people on their writing skills, it will not change the issue at hand,” Carlson said. “No test can place a student on a scale because there are way too many factors to consider.”

The Educational Policy Committee hopes to submit a proposal to the University Senate in mid-winter on whether to require the writing test. The University Senate will then decide whether to accept the proposal.