U to require writing test

Molly Moker

In hopes of improving new students’ writing skills, the University will require a written exam as part of its admission process in coming years.

Universities throughout the nation will decide whether to require a written exam on ACT tests beginning in 2005, said Craig Swan, vice provost for undergraduate education. A writing section will be required on all SAT exams starting the same year.

Besides the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota is the last institution in the Big Ten to announce it will require the written portion of the ACT, Swan said. He said the University will start using the tests in the fall 2006 admissions process.

On the written section of the ACT and SAT exams, students will be asked to write about specific topics such as whether schools should require uniforms, Swan said. He said the section will not require students to have outside knowledge about the topics.

The test will also include multiple-choice questions on grammar use and word choice.

Swan said the writing score will be a separate addition to the composite score of the other test sections.

Admission to the University is based on a holistic review of each student, Swan said. He said the writing sample will be used in addition to other academic achievements.

Swan said some people are concerned that the writing test, estimated at 30 to 50 minutes in length, is not a full evaluation of a student’s skills.

“I wouldn’t want to say the test is perfect,” Swan said. “But we shouldn’t let perfect get in the way of good. It’s a step in the right direction.”

Kirsten Jamsen, director of the University’s Center for Writing, said she has mixed feelings about a writing exam on standardized tests.

“There are real limits on what tests like this can tell us,” she said.

She said the writing topics are simplistic and overused.

“Students need to use writing as a tool for discovery,” she said. “There’s not a lot of discovery that can go on in 30 minutes.”

University Provost Christine Maziar said the exam will be a great tool because it is standardized and graded by professionals.

“The SAT and the ACT have introduced this new evaluation of writing as part of a standard test package,” Maziar said. “It will show a student’s talent beyond filling in bubble sheets.”

Swan said that although writing skills at the University are improving, they could be better.

Terry Collins, director of academic affairs and curriculum in the General College, said the requirement will help students’ writing skills over time. It should not make the University or the college more selective, he said.

“Any time the University is explicit about requirements, it’s a good thing,” Collins said.

He said that because the University will use the written test as one of many factors, it is a good idea.

“It will just add one more important piece of information into the mix,” Collins said. “If we

didn’t have a rich mix of things that we based our admissions on, then I would be hesitant to use this exam.”

Collins said the exam will be helpful in determining whether students will be able to surpass the required first-year English class. It could also make advisers aware of students who need additional help.

The written exam will make students take their high school English classes more seriously, Collins said.

“Putting this requirement in place communicates very clearly to high schools that a writing ability is important if you want to come to the University,” Collins said.

The University has looked to improve student writing skills in the past, Swan said.

The University changed its writing requirements in 1999 after switching from quarters to semesters. Before the change, the only writing requirements were a one-quarter first-year class and a one-quarter junior-year class, Swan said.

Now, he said, a semester-long first-year writing course and four writing-intensive courses are required before graduation.

In 2002, 62.5 percent of students said they felt the University helped them make gains in writing clearly and effectively, according to senior surveys.

The number increased to 71.4 percent in 2003, the first year graduates attended all four years with writing-intensive requirements.