Maneuvering to Protect Writing Requirements

My dean and I are trying to change a university policy regarding students being waived out of the first semester of composition (ENGL 101: Critical Reading and Expository Writing). Our university’s current policy regarding students being waived out of the first semester of composition is as follows:

Entering freshmen whose standard score on the English section of the ACT is 28 or better will receive 3 hours credit for ENGL 101 and may then enroll in ENGL 102 [Critical Thinking and Argumentation].

Students used to have to request a waiver form and as such advisers discussed both classes with them before they made a decision to skip ENGL 101 or not, but now the credit for ENGL 101 is automatically applied to their transcript and they go directly into ENGL 102. My dean and I are looking to change this policy. We do not want students to be waived out of a writing class by a score on a multiple choice exam. We have requested data from our institutional research office regarding ACT score ranges and student success in writing. We want to know the grades earned in ENGL 102 from students who took ENGL 101 at our institution and those who did not. We are also trying to gather information as to how taking ENGL 101 impacted the overall success of students at ETSU – overall GPA, retention, graduation, etc.

Institutional Research, which works for the university upper administration, is dragging its heels on this. My sense is that the upper administration doesn’t want the policy changed or that they find this potential change in policy a low priority. My dean and I find it hard to believe that a multiple choice test can determine how well a student writes. Anecdotally, we have stories of students with high ACT scores (and who were waived out of ENGL 101 as a result) who then failed ENGL 102.

What are your thoughts? Any help with this matter would be much appreciated.–Prof. Stymied by Standardized Tests

Dear Prof. Stymied,

One thing you have to your advantage is that your dean is on board. It would be much harder to make this change by yourself.

It seems to me that you have two problems: one is the policy as it stands and the other is the seeming indifference or even resistance towards changing the policy. Wanting to have the data on your side is a good move — administrators are much more likely to respond to numbers than to anecdotes and arguments. As you point out, though, getting the data is a big part of the struggle.

So let’s start with the staff in Institutional Research. You have a few options here. Clearly emails haven’t worked in getting their attention. The next step is phone calls, if you haven’t already done that. Politely but firmly ask for a projected timeline for how long they think it will take to gather this information and get it to you. Don’t let them off the phone until you have that. Then as soon as you hang up, send an email, cc’ed to the dean and the provost, recounting your conversation and the deadline IR gave you. If you’ve already tried the phone, you can increase the pressure by setting up a meeting with the head of IR and ask for the data in person. Again, after your meeting is over, email the content of the meeting, cc’ed to administration, to the person with whom you met.

If IR is a dead end, how about the registrar’s office? It’s likely they have this kind of information, since they’re the ones who record course exemptions and class grades. Might they be able to gather the data you need? You’d also want as a control group the students who do take 101 before 102, to compare how well they do in the second course in the sequence. I’d also recommend that you get some supporting evidence from peer institutions. Do they allow students with high ACT or SAT scores to skip college composition? I would expect that’s not the case and that they only waive the requirement for high scores on the AP English Language exam.

Once you have the information, you need to strategize about how to present it. One issue that your provost will care about is retention. If a student fails or does poorly in ENGL 102, that militates against that student returning for the next year of school at your institution. It also interferes with time to graduation, since the student has to retake 102 before they can move on to more specialized classes. And, of course, it’s setting students up to fail or do badly in the second class in the composition sequence.

What if most students who have 101 waived are doing okay in 102, though? This is where the data fails you: I’d imagine that the majority of the students who are waived into 102 can manage, although they’re not necessarily doing as well as students who have done both parts of the sequence. This is where your powers of argumentation come in: you don’t have the data behind you, but you do have larger academic and professional development goals. Every year there is an article that argues that humanities graduates are more employable than their STEM counterparts (and that in the long run they make similar money). Here’s the most recent, from reporting by the Washington Post. Students who have more training in reading, writing, and analysis are better off throughout their college careers and in their lives after college. Depriving them of the opportunity to work on their writing does them a disservice.

You might also want to get other department chairs on your side. Students majoring in Philosophy, Political Science, History, Art History, Sociology, Anthropology, to name just a few disciplines, also need solid training in writing to do well in their majors. You can enlist the chairs of those departments to join you in your petition to the Provost. Often if a request is made by enough people it will be acceded to, if only to shut them up.

Ultimately, you might not succeed. But it’s worth trying a few strategies, especially building a coalition with other department chairs, to see if you can make change. Good luck!

–The Chair

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