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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The “Writing Proficiency” requirement has to be improved

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Bianca Oppedisano
A girl stresses over school work. Illustration by Bianca Oppedisano / Mass Media Staff

In my time at UMass Boston, I have only heard one person have anything nice to say about our Writing Proficiency requirement. During my first semester here, I would have been counted among the masses; I hated every aspect of it. It seemed like nothing more than a pointless inconvenience to me, and it certainly had a negative effect on my already high blood pressure levels.

Recently, I have changed my tune a bit. As I have become further and further removed from the memories of my experience with EWRAP—one of the options available for Writing Proficiency completion—I have realized a few things.

First, much of my stress actually came from the fact that I severely overloaded myself for that semester. I was taking five courses, working an internship at the William Joiner Institute and taking yet another course that went along with the internship. Some fault does lie with a lack of clear communication with the school, though, which I will get to in a bit.

Second, I now understand the importance of assessing writing ability at the college level. Look, it’s no secret that the United States scores very poorly in education worldwide—and while the NAEP hasn’t evaluated writing since 2011, their 2011 data suggests that only 27 percent of grade school students were considered at least “proficient” in writing. (1) The Nation’s Report Card shows that, out of a scale of 0-500, grade-school students have seemingly never reached even a 300 in reading or a 200 in writing. (2)

This is really horrible, and UMass Boston’s explanation for why it tests for writing proficiency makes a lot of sense when you consider these stats. Their main argument is that by testing students’ writing about midway through their undergrad, they can assess their ability to handle the 300-400 level courses that are coming ahead. (3)

But there are some problems with how this is accomplished. This is really what I want to discuss.

First and foremost are the glaring oversights with the different ways to complete the requirement. Currently, there are three ways to do so: EWRAP, WPE Portfolio, and WPE Timed Exam. Let’s take a look at them quickly before I explain the oversights.

EWRAP is probably the easiest way to accomplish Writing Proficiency. The deal is that students take an accredited “intermediate seminar” course and write a final paper of at least 1,250 words as the major component. Then, students need to include two essays of 750 words or more that were written during their time at UMass Boston. Lastly, students will write a relatively short “reflection letter”—essentially a self-assessment.

Another option, the WPE Portfolio, is similar but a little more involved. The portfolio includes two papers that are at least 750 words long, a paper at least 1,250 words long and an additional “challenge essay” written just for the WPE Portfolio of at least 1,500 words. All of these papers must have been written during your time at UMass Boston.

The last option is to take a timed exam. This is granted on a case-by-case basis, and students who wish to take this route will have to email the Writing Proficiency office.

So, what’s the problem here? First, you’ll notice that every single one of these papers must have been written at UMass Boston. Why? This is not only a completely arbitrary rule because it punishes transfer students who have completed significant chunks of their college education at other colleges.

Some students have even completed most of their education elsewhere. Why can’t they use essays written during this time? Given that UMass Boston employees assess all of the essays submitted, the claims about differing assessment strategies do not hold water. I just think this rule is punishing transfer students with extra work for no reason, whether they have to take an intermediate seminar or write a challenge essay.

Second, and on a similar note, it seems ridiculous to me that students who have completed one or more honors-level courses during previous college semesters cite this as proof of their writing proficiency. Each successfully completed honors-level course that requires writing should be counted as at least one EWRAP or WPE Portfolio essay. These are grueling courses, and I think that students who have completed them have proven their proficiency in writing.

Third, it is seemingly never explained or made clear that students must attentively plan out when they take their intermediate seminar, if they choose the EWRAP route. This can lead to undue stress and frustration. I’ll give you an example from my own experience.

When I first came to UMass Boston after years at Middlesex Community College, I was informed about the Writing Proficiency requirement. I was told that EWRAP would be the best route for me, so I took the intermediate seminar during this first semester. I only found out later, when I was emailed about the requirements, that I could not use any writing from my time at community college. I had a bit of a problem on my hands. Why?

Well, this was my first semester at UMass Boston, and one of my five classes—the intermediate seminar—was already counting for one of my essays. This left four more classes from which to pick my two other essays, one of which would not serve to produce any essays.

So, I had only three classes to choose essays from. Luckily, they did require well-sourced, analytical essays that I could apply to my EWRAP. But then the “reflection letter” would trip me up because the purpose is to analyze the development of your writing over time, and if I only used papers from one semester, I could hardly accomplish this.

To top things off, I discovered that students can take only one intermediate seminar and that we are required to submit the 1,250-plus word essay during the very same semester that we take the seminar. The only exception arose if you took the intermediate seminar during the summer or winter session immediately beforehand. Otherwise, we are relegated to submitting the more intensive WPE Portfolio.

I managed to power through, since I was lucky to have enough essays to submit at the end of the semester, and basically fudged my way through the reflection letter. But what if a student unknowingly takes their intermediate seminar during their first semester, along with a part-time class load and multiple math or music courses? They’ll be screwed out of EWRAP, that’s what.

The whole system is convoluted and not very accessible. This is the last major problem. Students should not have to search through a chain of obscure pages on the UMass Boston website to get Writing Portfolio information. Advisors seem to not have a good grasp on the matter either. Even if you do find the webpage yourself, some important information is still obfuscated.

For example, assistance programs—both for pre-submission and for improving your writing after a potential rejection—are only listed under the WPE Portfolio option, and nowhere else. If you do somehow find the programs, you will see that there are no links to access these resources. Instead, you have to wait around for scheduled email after registering for WPE Portfolio. Why? UMass Boston seems to think that it makes sense for a university to obfuscate access to writing improvement programs as much as possible.

Clearly, Writing Proficiency at UMass Boston needs some serious improvement. We need highly visible, frequently distributed notices about the requirement with clear instructions and recommendations. We need honors course credit. And transfer students should be able to use solid essays from other colleges in their EWRAP or WPE Portfolio.

I think the best way to get these improvements is for every student to make their relevant concerns known by emailing the Writing Proficiency office at [email protected]. Talk to your professors too! If they keep hearing the same complaints over and over from each student, they will likely bring this information to the administration. Whether the administration will listen, I do not know—but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

1)      https://www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2022/01/26/we-get-national-reading-test-results-every-2-years-writing-try-20/?sh=21fc79503b9d

2)      https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/profiles/stateprofile?chort=1&sub=MAT&sj=&sfj=NP&st=MN&year=2022R3

3)      https://www.umb.edu/academics/vpass/undergraduate_studies/writing_proficiency

About the Contributors
James Cerone, Opinions Editor
Bianca Oppedisano, Illustrator