Let’s Institute an Exit Exam in Writing

From the National Association of Scholars’ 100 Great Ideas for Higher Education  

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The great scandal of American education is that students can complete their schooling without learning to write correct prose. Even at the college level, and at good schools, most students cannot write even a page of text without committing some error of grammar, usage, or spelling. This is apart from content. The reason is that their teachers–from kindergarten all the way through–have little interest in correcting these errors. Either they themselves don’t know how to write, or it’s too much work.

Professors have no personal or professional interest in whether their students write well, so they ignore the problems and pass students along. College writing programs have little impact on the problem. But once on the job students quickly discover that the boss is their coauthor as their teacher was not, demanding that they be able to write letters or reports that he can sign without embarrassment–or be fired.

I recommend instituting a writing exam that undergraduates must pass to graduate from college, with rules for grammar and usage defined in advance. Ask students to respond to some essay question in, say, five pages, without outside help. Allow students some very small number of errors, or fail them. Have a nonprofit body–funded by all colleges and universities–that would operate separately from coursework correct and return the papers to students with errors indicated.

Allows students to take the test any number of times, but make the number of attempts to pass part of their academic record. Publicize these results by school, with the goal that they will eventually be factored into U.S. News & World Report rankings.

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Lawrence Mead

Lawrence Mead is a Professor in the Department of Politics at New York University.

One thought on “Let’s Institute an Exit Exam in Writing”

  1. Yes to grammar and usage, but also to higher-order conceptual principles of exposition (idea-and-development format) in most all genres (memos, letters, reports, analyses) in all three life-arenas: not just School, but Personal, Vocational, and Civic venues.
    These might (do) include: comprehensiveness, conceptuality plus concretization, convergence (unity), consequence or structure-arrangement, categorization into subtypes, calibration or proportion-balance, contours or larger subparts, coherence and cohesion, “concatenation” or syntax, conciseness of course, and then of course correctness…
    (Makes the 5-par. theme look like a rude wheelbarrow aside an AWD turbocharged materials-processor–but such are the demands AND potentials of good expository communication as useful, indeed needed, in RWLAS real-world life after School). [“What can they Do, when out in the Blue?”] TTFN.

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