What is the WPA?
Overview of the California State University Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement
(GWAR) and SDSU’s Writing Placement Assessment (WPA)
The California State University (CSU) system has long recognized the role of writing, reading, and critical thinking in the success of our students. We seek to foster students’ abilities to understand and respond to the arguments of others, as well as to articulate their own arguments in ways that will enable them to benefit the communities they serve in California and beyond our state.
The Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement (GWAR) reflects our commitment to these abilities. The 2002 CSU GWAR Review Committee’s report encourages CSU campuses to “devise writing prompts that challenge students to demonstrate the comprehensive writing skills expected of college graduates, not just the proficiencies required of students when they enter the university” (1). This instruction speaks to the significance of enhancing writing skills at both the lower- and upper-division levels, a charge that is fulfilled at San Diego State University (SDSU) through the combination of the Writing Placement Assessment (WPA) and the classes into which students are placed by the assessment.
The WPA and National Learning Outcomes for Writing
Our writing program at SDSU is closely aligned with current disciplinary research, with recommendations published by major professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators, and the National Writing Project, and with reports outlining ‘best practices,’ such as the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” (produced by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project). The WPA also supports and reflects these standards, recommendations, and nationally recognized learning outcomes.
The WPA is a placement tool and is best understood in that light, rather than as a competency exam. Taken in the semester when a student achieves junior status, the WPA is designed to determine whether a student needs additional writing instruction to meet the high standards of an SDSU graduate and, if the student would benefit from such instruction, what level would be appropriate. At least two carefully trained readers, virtually all of whom have years of experience in this assessment process, read and assess each essay. These assessments are “blind” so that neither knows what score has been given by the other reader to ensure that the most accurate score possible is assigned. If the two readers disagree in their evaluations of the essay, a third reader reviews the essay.
Understanding Writing Assessment
The writing curriculum and methods of assessing what has been referred to as “college-level writing” have been longstanding interests of writing scholars and practitioners at both the secondary- and post-secondary levels since the late nineteenth century. In 1894, the National Education Association published The Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies, which concluded, among other findings that:
. . . it is clear that the power to write a language can only be obtained by unremitting practice, yet, in the opinion of the Conference, such practice may properly be accompanied and illustrated by a course in elementary rhetoric. (95)
A commitment to the value of clear written expression has certainly persisted over the past century. Edward White, long recognized for his expertise in college writing assessment, argues that the term “college-level writing” lacks meaning apart from a rhetorical situation, with its inherent purpose and audience, precisely the focus of SDSU’s WPA. Moreover, White observes, we must be careful to take into account what stage of college we are assessing when we say college-level writing (246).
The WPA, as a member of the class of assessments that are intended to measure a form of college-level writing, does what many writing exams do not do; it seeks to measure students’ written expression against the University’s stated General Education area goals in Communication and Critical Thinking. This elevates the WPA from merely being an idiosyncratic writing assessment to one that reinforces SDSU’s goals for students, goals that are essential for student success.
Three Levels of Placement Based on the WPA
It’s important to underscore that the WPA is a tool that ensures students are placed in appropriate writing courses. In other words, the primary purpose of the WPA is to determine placement rather than writing competence. After taking the assessment, students are placed into one of three categories, which are discussed below.
Each year, hundreds of students receive the highest assessment level on the WPA (score of 10). These students are currently writing at the high levels expected of SDSU graduates and, unless their major requires additional writing work, they are not required to take additional writing classes.
The most common level of placement based on the WPA is a mid-range score (score of 8). These students are assessed as being prepared to start their upper-division writing work. This is unsurprising, as most students take the WPA just as they enter their junior year. These students have a wide range of upper-division writing classes available to them that are designed to prepare them for graduation-level writing and the critical thinking abilities that sophisticated communicators typically possess.
Some students are assessed at a lower level of writing facility (score of 6 or lower). These students need additional work to be prepared to take on the writing projects expected of upper-division students. These students are directed to Rhetoric and Writing Studies 280 or Linguistics 281, which are designed to support and prepare those students for the demanding work of upper-division writing. Far from being “gatekeeper classes,” in fact, they reflect SDSU’s commitment to students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, working toward enabling our richly diverse student body to engage in the kind of reading, writing, and critical thinking that are central to academic and professional success.
Students come to SDSU through many paths – community college transfer, international programs, The American Language Institute. This diversity is valued by SDSU, as our Strategic Plan indicates when it calls for “invest[ing in] retention of under-represented students through targeted recruitment and outreach to inform students of exceptional programmatic and co-curricular opportunities.” RWS 280 and LING 281 are part of this important strategy, enabling the success of students who might otherwise struggle with the skills required of upper-division classes in ways that could potentially delay graduation.
The WPA and General Education Goals
At its core, the WPA is intended to reinforce the University’s commitment to the value of communication and critical thinking. The SDSU General Catalog notes that “Communication and Critical Thinking courses establish intellectual frameworks and analytic tools that help students explore, construct, critique, and integrate sophisticated texts” (91). The WPA reflects this commitment to enhancing these critical frameworks.
The WPA is an assessment tool that determines the extent to which students are ready to undertake these ways of working with texts, recognizing that the writing of the academy and the workplace are purposeful. To become engaged participants in our democratic society, SDSU students must not only be able to make their own arguments, but they must also be able to understand and evaluate critically the arguments of others. That is to say, they need to analyze the specific evidence, consider the intended audience, and comprehend the complexities of the context. The WPA is designed to assess student ability in these crucial capacities.