Since 1977, every campus in the CSU has been subject to the Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement or GWAR. While all CSU campuses use the English Placement Test (EPT) for placing incoming students, the GWAR test is left to individual campuses to design. The language mandating the GWAR is now a part of Executive Order 665, which states:
Certification of graduation writing proficiency is an all-campus responsibility. Certification may rely on evidence of writing ability as demonstrated in written coursework, essay examinations, or other measures of student writing competence. Measures may be developed which best fit individual campus needs. However, certification by examination shall include a common essay written and evaluated under controlled conditions and scored by at least two faculty readers.
At Cal Poly Pomona, the GWAR is satisfied by the Graduation Writing Test or GWT. The GWT is a single essay written in 75 minutes under controlled conditions. The topics are designed for a general student population and do not require any specific knowledge. The specific topic is unknown to the students before they sit down to write the exam. Students are required to write a thesis-driven college essay, supported by personal experience and any other knowledge or reasoning they can bring to the topic.
All CSU students must meet this requirement before graduation. If a student has passed the GWAR at another CSU campus, Cal Poly must accept it. The test is available for undergraduates at the completion of 90 units, and for graduate students on admission. The test is mandatory after the completion of 120 units for undergrads, 8 units for graduate students, at which point a registration hold is placed. The hold can be lifted by going to the Test Center and registering for the test.
The GWT essays are graded by a group of faculty from across the University. The GWT Coordinator starts out the grading session by going over the topic and the six-point scoring guide. Then the graders score and discuss six essays chosen as “rangefinders” or “anchors.” These essays represent the six score points on the scoring guide. The rangefinders are followed by more sample papers. After each paper has been read, the Coordinator asks how many people gave the paper a six, a five, a four, etc., and records the show of hands. When almost all the hands in the room go up at the same time, the graders are ready to grade.
Each essay is read by two readers and the scores are totaled. The highest possible score is “12.” The lowest possible score is “2.” A passing score is “7.” If there is more than one number between the scores, for example if one reader gave the paper a “3” and the other a “5,” the paper is re-read by a third reader.
The graders read and score very quickly. They consider and weigh many factors, such as focus, organization, argument, support, sentence variety, and grammatical accuracy in arriving at a score. They do not count errors, but errors accumulate and create an impression, and may cause an otherwise well-written paper to receive a lower-half score.
Nearly 80% of Cal Poly Pomona students pass the GWT on their first attempt. The students who struggle with the GWT are generally non-native speakers of English, often in technical majors such as Computer Science, Computer Information Systems, or Engineering. Most CSU campuses offer students who fail the GWAR test multiple times an alternative course. Instead, at Cal Poly Pomona, students who have failed the exam at least three times, and have made a significant effort to improve their writing skills, usually by writing six practice essays, meeting with tutors, and re-writing them, are offered the chance to apply for a waiver of the requirement. If the waiver is granted by the Appeals Committee, the student is allowed to graduate, but his or her transcript will say “Writing Competency Not Certified–Special Waiver Granted.” It is not possible to remove this notation, and the student will not be allowed to take the GWT again. Many students come to the Writing Center for help in applying for this waiver.
Because the waiver places language on the student’s transcripts that may negatively influence the student’s career opportunities, our procedures should still be directed toward helping the student actually pass the exam, with the waiver as a last resort if all else fails. Thus the work we ask the student to do, and our responses to it, should be consistent with both sound writing pedagogy and the requirements of the waiver.
To apply for a waiver, the student must write six practice essays, go over them with writing tutors, and revise each essay in the three quarters before the last attempt of the exam. After the last failing attempt, the student should go to the Testing Office to pick up a petition form. This form is turned in, along with the six essays and revisions, to the GWT Appeals Committee, which will decide whether or not to grant the waiver.
Here is a step-by-step procedure for dealing with students who come for help with the GWT.
In certain cases, the UWC provides tutoring by fax machine. Generally this service is provided to students who have finished all course work and are trying to qualify for a waiver by writing six practice essays. Many of these students are now working full time, and cannot come to campus during our working hours. The essays for the waiver petition must be handwritten, so the fax machine is the best solution.
Fax-back tutoring is handled just like in-center appointments, in that you should spend about 30 minutes, no more, no less, in responding to the essay. If you are scheduled to work, but no students have made appointments with you, you may be given a faxed essay to work on. There is a fax-back response sheet with categories and boxes for comments. You can also write on the essay itself.
Students are instructed to spend 75 minutes writing the practice essay, just like it was an actual GWT. The resulting essays are often very weak. In a face-to-face situation, most tutors temper their critical comments with positive ones, and are careful not to traumatize the writer with overwhelming criticism. Somehow, in responding to a faxed essay, perhaps because the student is not present, some tutors become very critical and write comments that sound angry and intimidating. Remember that the writer is a human being, struggling to pass a test that has proved to be very difficult. The writer already knows he or she has lots of writing problems. When responding to a faxed essay, use all the patience and tact you would use in a face-to-face situation.
You may also be asked to respond to online essays on a Blackboard site. These are handled like fax-back essays, except that you use an online .pdf form and/or the commenting feature in Microsoft word to respond to the essay.