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Writing rule undergoes a rewriting

By Dave Jones on June 9, 2006 in University

The Academic Senate voted last week to change the way students can progress beyond English 57, the writing composition class formerly known as Subject A and which is a prerequisite for all other undergraduate courses in English.

With the revision, effective in the fall quarter, students no longer need to pass the English 57 final, known as the Analytical Writing Placement Exam. A grade of C or better in coursework leading up to the exam will satisfy the English 57 requirement.

The proposal, three years in the making, came from the senate Undergraduate Council's Preparatory Education Committee led by Lorena Oropeza, an assistant professor of history.

Matt Farrens, a computer science professor and outgoing chairman of the Undergraduate Council, labeled the revision a matter of fairness and "not an attempt to torpedo writing at the University of California at Davis."

The writing requirement, in fact, dates back to a decision made by the UC faculty in 1898.

"We all agree on the importance of student writing skills," Farrens told an audience of about 100 at the senate's June 1 meeting in Memorial Union.

"Then why are we diminishing the current standards?" asked Alan Jackman, a professor of chemistry and materials science.

The debate did not last long, and senators approved the revision by an overwhelming voice vote.

With fewer students repeating English 57, the university could see students taking less time to graduate. Even so, time-to-degree was not a motivating factor for the Undergraduate Council, Farrens said by e-mail.

The council's goal is to reduce English 57 student-teacher ratios from a maximum of 30 students per teacher to 25-to-1 or fewer. "We are lowering it in order to improve the quality of instruction," Farrens said.

With the new regulation, he said, 300 to 400 students a year will move on to regular English classes without passing the Analytical Writing Placement Exam, but with a C or better in English 57.

The university plans to "carefully monitor" the academic progress of these students, and if they appear to be slipping for reasons related to writing, the entry-level writing regulation will be reconsidered, Farrens said.

He described the Analytical Writing Placement Exam as an unfair "gatekeeper" for enrollment in regular English classes — unfair because some students get through the gate in other ways.

For example, some students satisfy the entry-level writing requirement by attaining a grade of C or better in an English composition class in community college prior to enrolling at UC Davis. The Analytical Writing Placement Exam is not used in these classes.

Other students are exempt from English 57, and the exam, if they score well enough on the SAT II writing test, or on Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests before enrolling in the university.

For everyone else, the only alternative is English 57. Sacramento City College instructors teach the one-quarter, 50-hour course on the UC Davis campus, and city college and UC Davis instructors grade the final exams jointly. This review system came into being in 1993 when, during a budget crunch, the university contracted with city college to teach what was then called English A.

Farrens said the review system could be considered elitist, and senate members received a background document with this explanation: "The existing approach … implies that the course grade in a class taught by our Unit 18 instructors is acceptable, but if the class is taught by someone else we need to stand over their shoulders to check their work."

The university has no review power over the writing grades given to students in community college before they come to the university. These students account for about a third of new enrollees.

Farrens cited another inequity: Students receive no credit toward graduation for taking English 57, unlike students who take an equivalent class in community college.

He noted that if a student failed the English 57 final, he or she also failed the class — even if they achieved a C or better, not counting the final. After repeating the class and failing the final a second time, a student could present his or her writing portfolio for review, in a bid for an exemption, if the student had earned an A or A-minus in English 57, or a B or higher in Linguistics 23 for non-native English speakers.

"The pass rate on this portfolio review is approximately 90 percent," states the background document included in the senate agenda, "indicating that failing to pass the AWPE final exam does not appear to correlate strongly to the student's ability to write adequately."

The background document notes that in-class writing accounts for 40 percent to 45 percent of the English 57 grade, and students cannot receive a C or better in the class without maintaining a minimum C average on in-class writing assignments.

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,