Writing skills test unfair, due for revision

Ira Lazo,

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.