Students enrolled in any of the California State University campuses must first pass a Writing Skills Test (WST) before they graduate. This test, though mandated, is flawed and an unnecessary requirement. At the very least it should be reviewed and revised to ensure that this test is relevant.
For the last 39 years, CSU’s across the state have used the WST as an exit assessment. However each campus offers a variety of options in order to fulfill this requirement. Some require students only take the exam, while others mandate that students take a supplementary WST class in addition to the exam.
At California State University East Bay, the WST can be taken year round at the East Bay locations in Hayward, Oakland or Concord, either on paper for $25 or on a computer for $50. On the day of the test, students pick from two essay prompts. Topics have ranged from subjects such as salary quotas for entertainers and athletes to defending the right to have the death penalty. Test-takers then have 90 minutes to craft an essay with a minimum of five to six paragraphs, complete with transitions and a concrete thesis.
Students must wait an average of 3-4 weeks for their scores to arrive via email. To pass, the students must score an eight or higher in order to show “Clear Competence” in their writing. Any less is considered a failure and they have the option to retake it for an extra undetermined fee, or enroll in a WST course.
The WST is a flawed exam because it has subjective grading standards. What would count as an A paper for one professor could be a B- for another. Despite controlled grading conditions similar to rubrics, the essay reader’s bias will inevitably shine through.
The spectrum of essay topics is much too broad. It’s difficult to prepare for the exam when there is no limit to the subjects that could be used as a prompt. Rather than being a subject matter expert, test-takers must scramble together examples and in-depth analysis to piece together a convincing argument for a topic in 15 minutes or less not taking period.
Most students put off taking the WST till their Senior year, which is problematic because by then they’ve already learned advanced writing techniques that conflict with the basic writing structures required by the WST.
There are ways we could improve this situation for students. One way is to have strict requirements for when the WST should be taken. San Jose State University uses the WST scores both as a graduation requirement and as a filter. Students are required to pass the test by their Junior year, before they take any upper division and major specific classes.
Another possible change would be to release a list of topics to the test takers a week or so before they take the exam. The exact prompt wouldn’t be released till that day, but at least the student can do some research, and come prepared to form concrete and persuasive arguments.
Failing the WST twice has been a frustrating experience not only for myself, but for other students. A humbling blow to the ego, it sends the wrong message that we are bad writers, when really this outdated test is to blame.
Preparing for a writing skills test? Take a look at these helpful tips from Ann Arbor, MI teacher Elaina R. to calm your nerves…
Writing skills tests are a very real part of life. They come up in grade school, in college entrance exams, and even in employment applications. Fortunately, writing skills tests are formulaic. Once you know what is on them, the prospect of taking them periodically throughout life becomes less daunting. Here are the basic elements of a writing skills test – and how you can successfully prepare for one.
Elements of a Writing Skills Test
Writing skills tests usually consist of one or more of the following components.
- Identifying and Correcting Errors
Error identification questions are often multiple choice. They test your grasp of English writing rules. In these questions, a sentence is presented, and you need to determine whether or not it contains an error. If there is an error, you’ll need to identify the error and show how to correct it.
Some errors in a writing skills tests have to do with punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure. Others have to do with rules like plural agreement and illogical comparison.
For short answer responses, you’ll be asked to respond to a prompt in one or two paragraphs. Here, you’ll be evaluated on the basis or rhetorical skill, style, and overall response as well as on correct usage of the English language. You must also demonstrate the ability to understand the prompt.
As in the short answer category, you’ll be asked to respond to a prompt. However, in the essay section, you are expected to write a full-length essay rather than just one or two paragraphs. Overall essay structure, focus, and quality comes into play here, on top of rhetorical skill and proper grammar.
How to Study for a Writing Skills Test
Do some research to find out exactly what you are facing. If there isn’t a short answer section on your test, for instance, you don’t have to bother to focus on short answer questions.
Studying is easier if you break it down into categories. You need a good grasp of punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, and common English language rules for every section on the test, so focusing on these skills is important. Try studying one or two specific skills (such as comma use or plural agreement) each day.
To produce good writing samples, you need to hone your rhetorical skills. Practice structuring short answers so that the first sentence clearly states your case and the following sentences explain it further. Practice using your knowledge of punctuation and other basics here.
For the essay section, structure is your best friend. Practice writing outlines that include a clear thesis statement, an introduction, clear topic sentences for each paragraph, and a sound conclusion. Direction and organization mark the difference between success and failure in the essay section. Never start writing without developing an outline first, and take care to stick to the topic at all times.
There are multitudinous study guides available for writing skills tests. If possible, choose one that was designed specifically for your test. Online practice tests are also a great option, since they often feel like games and make studying more fun.
A private tutor is your most solid means of preparing for a writing skills test. He or she can make sure that you cover every aspect of the test and are well-prepared for the rigors of a timed testing experience. A tutor can also guide you on what to study on your own, which can be a relief for those daunted by the volume of material at hand.
Preparing for a writing skills test doesn’t have to be stressful. With a proper understanding of the test itself, coupled with appropriate study and help from a tutor, you are sure to do well. Plus, studying for a writing skills test has a silver lining: your emails, letters, and Facebook posts will suddenly be poignant and error-free!
Elaina R. is a writer, editor, singer, and voice teacher based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her book Slaying Your Admissions Essay Dragon shows how to write application essays that are actually fun to read. Elaina has served as an editor for several notable books as well, including NFL great Adrian Peterson’s autobiography Don’t Dis My Abilities. Learn more about Elaina here!
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