The University Record, February 28, 1994

New students required to submit writing portfolios

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

After much consultation with high school teachers and students, the University will change the way it assesses the writing skills of newly admitted undergraduates, dropping an impromptu essay test in favor of a diverse writing portfolio.

Each year since 1979, most incoming students have taken a 50-minute writing exam during summer orientation to determine placement in a writing practicum, introductory composition course, or exemption from both.

Beginning this fall, students entering the University will be required to submit a writing portfolio prior to orientation in order to enroll in a writing course. The portfolio will consist of four writing samples: a response to something read in school, a paper written for a class other than English, a piece of writing most representative of a student’s work, and a self-assessment of the portfolio.

“The portfolio has been constructed to allow maximum flexibility to accommodate the very diverse students who attend the U-M,” says English and education Prof. Jay Robinson, director of the English Composition Board (ECB).

“The critical piece of writing is the self-assessment, in which the writer explains what he or she has selected for the portfolio, as well as providing background about each piece—the occasion for which it was written, the issues that came up in the process of writing, the learning it represents.”

Emily Decker, ECB associate director for assessment, believes the new requirement—which plays no role in the University’s admissions process—will result in a better evaluation of students’ writing abilities and more accurate placements.

“Because of the combination of writing and reflection, we gain a much clearer vision of students’ writing experiences and abilities, and their own understanding of their abilities, than we ever could from a writing exam,” she says.

Decker adds that since the bulk of the portfolio will consist of writing samples from previous classes, the new requirement does not necessarily mean extra work for students. However, assessing students’ writing will require more time, with at least two ECB readers evaluating each portfolio.

While an exam may be faster and less costly to administer, Decker says it holds little benefit for students.

“Although the impromptu writing test regularly identified the students coming into the University who were most in need of further writing instruction, with increasing frequency, it is not consistent with the way students are taught to write at their high schools,” she says. “Nor does the test reflect the principles we value in our own classes, where we encourage writing, reflection and careful revising.”

Further, Decker says that distractions and adverse testing conditions—homesickness, tension, unexpected topics and “cramped conditions of mass testing on a hectic summer morning”—may hamper a student’s ability to write effectively.

As the first large, public university to require students to submit writing portfolios, the U-M, Decker says, is taking a leading role in cooperation with secondary schools to support effective writing instruction.

A 1992 pilot program, in which incoming U-M students were asked to voluntarily submit a portfolio for assessment, was implemented after consulting high school teachers, administrators and students to determine the contents of writing portfolios, she notes.

“At a time when the assessment of writing at the state level is receiving a great deal of attention, the visibility of our University within the state underscored the need for us to reconsider the way we assess the writing of incoming students,” Decker says. “No longer can we ignore the fact that maintaining a single impromptu exam as the bridge between K-12 and college is detrimental to the best teaching practices.

“While we hope that our portfolio project will support good writing instruction and good writing assessment within our state, we are equally hopeful that these portfolios will change the University as well. If students enter the University with a portfolio in hand, they enter with something to show when teachers ask what the student knows.”