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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Writing Proficiency Exam Criticized by Students


The director of the WPE Office, Harry Makrinos suggested that most of the students who fail initially expect the test to be a breeze.

Like many students, Alex Wilson failed the Writing Proficiency Exam (WPE), the test which UMass Boston claims on its website exists to “measures your ability to evaluate different points of view, read critically and write analytically,” on his first try.

However, Wilson, the president of the Anthropology Club, is highly literate. He maintains a GPA above 3.5. He is a student in UMass Boston’s Honors Program, as well as a cabinet member in the Undergraduate Student Government at the university.

In an email to The Mass Media, Wilson objected to “the fact that writing a paper has been standardized to this degree.” 

The WPE has been met with complaints from students like Wilson since it was implemented in 1979.

“I have no solution for fixing the exam,” he wrote. “Get rid of the inadequate and unnecessary waste of time.”

Wilson was one of many students who made his objections known following the latest WPE results, released on Jan. 18.

“It’s not a huge number,” Associate Dean of Students Mark Jannoni said. “But the ones that do come in are extremely upset.”

Jannoni directs student concerns to the WPE office, which offers advice and tutoring sessions. He guessed that the students that fail the exam don’t take it seriously.

“I don’t think that they’re generally upset with the exam itself,” Jannoni said. “I think they’re upset with their result . . . There’s no question that the WPE causes a high level of anxiety in some students.”

A study of the exam results from 2000 to 2005 determined that 96 percent of students pass the test after their second attempt. According to the same study, about 70 percent of test takers, some of whom have already taken the WPE once, pass each cycle.

Regardless of the results, Environmental Science major Lindie Ngobeni said she finds the WPE insulting.

“It makes me wonder what they’re trying to say about UMass Boston students as opposed to students that go off to UMass Amherst,” she said.

Ngobeni felt that students should know how to write critically before they are admitted to college, and that those who don’t should learn in freshman English. “What does the WPE say about the English 101 and 102 classes?” she said.

Proponents of the exam say it sets UMass Boston apart from other universities and demonstrates the quality of the education. As proof they point to the fact that transfer students have more trouble with the WPE than students that have been through the entire UMass Boston curriculum.

Biology major Kerri Babbitt argues that too many people reach college, especially UMass Boston, without being able to write coherently.

“English 101 and 102 are not enough,” Babbitt said. “Too many people leave college, especially UMass Boston, no better at writing a paper than when they come in.”

Babbitt suggested that required English classes should start preparing students for the test.

“I think they need to reevaluate the system,” she said. “So many people are failing.”

Ten out of the fifteen students interviewed for this article said that they did not pass on their first attempt at taking the test.

One woman studying near the Black Student Union suggested that only the English department should be grading the test.

“They have math professors grading English exams,” she said, asking to remain anonymous for fear that her math professor would be upset with her revelation.

“Math is much more structured,” she said. “There’s a single answer to each question, so the logic that they apply to the WPE essays is not necessarily relevant.”

English professor Itai Halevi, who grades the test along with volunteers from other departments, said all of the graders spend time assessing their biases as they grade the test. There is a common rubric for the exam, available online, that the graders use.

“Close to half of the time is spent calibrating, norming, the faculty grading the test,” Halevi said. “There’s this constant critical review of what’s working and what’s not working.”

Professor Halevi said that he is skeptical of standardized testing like the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which all students in Massachusetts public schools take, so he was skeptical of the WPE when he first got involved. Now he sees the exam as one aspect of a complete curriculum, a tool for both students and the university to assess their achievement.

“I think it serves an important purpose,” Halevi said. “It’s a way to assure a certain level of quality. This school takes academics seriously, and this is a concrete measure for us to say, yes this student is able to do what is expected of her.”

The director of the WPE Office, Harry Makrinos suggested that most of the students who fail initially expect the test to be a breeze.

“The word ‘fail’ is inaccurate,” Makrinos said. “When you fail, you don’t get another chance. This exam doesn’t appear on your record . . . nobody’s kept from graduating because of the WPE.”

Students that put the test off will sometimes take the exam after walking.

“A student will never be expelled or disciplined because of the test, except in cases of plagiarism,” Makrinos said. “Most students take the WPE, pass and go on to graduate without bringing up any issues.”

The WPE Office is accustomed to complaints, and is continually adjusting the exam as they get feedback from students and faculty.

“It is much different now than it was when I got here twelve years ago,” Director Makrinos said. “There is always discussion surrounding it . . . but the fact is, the exam is not going anywhere.”