University of Houston: Online Writing Assessment Enables Effective, Efficient Testing

In keeping with the Texas Academic Skills Program (TASP)—an instructional program designed to ensure that students attending public institutions in Texas have the academic skills necessary to perform effectively in college-level work—Texas universities must evaluate the reading, mathematics, and writing skills of each student entering public colleges and universities. With over 4,000 incoming freshman each year, many of whom have never taken the SATs, the University of Houston faced a daunting task.

The University of Houston needed to assess each student's writing ability for proper placement in English classes. This required students sit for a five-hour test, which included an essay portion, and then wait six weeks to receive their scores because the tests were sent to a central scoring office, and the results mailed back. The slowness of the entire process resulted in the University of Houston counselors meeting several times with each student. This was time-consuming and left the counselors with less time to address other academic needs of the incoming students.

"We clearly needed a faster way to conduct the writing assessments, as well as immediate feedback on each [test]," explains Gary Greer, director of academic counseling at the University of Houston.

Even more important, the University of Houston needed a way not just to assess incoming students' writing abilities at the beginning of their freshman year, but also later in their academic careers. To meet requirements for graduation at the university, students must be able to pass the Junior Writing Proficiency Exam, in which they must demonstrate they can write at the level of a college junior or senior. With an emphasis on focus, clarity, and grammar, this test ensures that students cannot move on academically until they have mastered the appropriate writing skills for their current class year. At the University of Houston's University College, which Greer calls "the home of all undeclared majors," students must take and pass the exam before they are allowed to officially declare a major and move forward in their studies.

Efficiency with AI
The University of Houston found a solution in ACCUPLACER's WritePlacer Plus Online tool. Based on Vantage Learning's IntelliMetric engine, it uses a rich blend of artificial intelligence (AI) and the digitization of human expertise to accurately score and assess a student's competency in subjects ranging from reading and writing, to science and social studies.

WritePlacer Plus Online provides a direct measure of a student's writing skills and is offered as part of the ACCUPLACER Program. With this test, a student writes an essay in response to a specific prompt. WriterPlacer Plus Online features electronic scoring, which allows the college staffers to administer a writing assessment using any modern Web-browser-equipped computer connected to the Internet—with no software to load. The student's response is scored electronically using the IntelliMetric System, a platform that utilizes AI to score writing samples and open-ended responses. Scores are returned within seconds, allowing the university to incorporate WritePlacer Plus Online scores into branching profiles and placement rules.

"After taking the test, students immediately get a printout that shows them the focus and clarity of their writing," says Greer. "It's really efficient. We are able to bring the students in, test them and have them over to an advisor within minutes. It's one-stop shopping—and a task that previously took weeks is reduced to an hour."

Because the University of Houston has an open admissions policy, they have very little test data on each student, including few SAT scores. "All we really have is a high school diploma," explains Greer.

Meeting State Requirements
WritePlacer Plus Online helps the school's counselors and placement specialists handle students more efficiently and with better understanding of their unique needs. Student writing samples are scored using modified holistic scoring, which evaluates the overall quality of an essay based on focus, development, organization, sentence structure, and mechanical conventions.

"We can use WritePlacer Plus Online to fulfill the state-mandated TASP requirement that we test every student to see if they can write a five-paragraph essay," says Greer. The assessment tool also offers a sentence-skill module that provides the information necessary to place the student in either developmental-level or college-level English. It can also be used to assess writing skills again in the junior year.

WritePlacer Plus Online is also convenient for students. They can access the test in the university's learning lab or other testing areas, and they can take it at their own convenience.

Mastering Skills
Finally, WritePlacer Plus Online helps ensure that every University of Houston graduate enters the business world with solid writing skills. According to Greer, a single course in freshman composition is not enough preparation.

"Many graduates in the past have somehow flown under the radar and simply not addressed their writing-proficiency problems. To me, that's a poor reflection on the university."

With WritePlacer Plus Online, Greer and his colleagues can help ensure that each University of Houston student receives appropriate writing instruction at the level they require. This allows them to master the skills necessary to be successful communicators and writers after they graduate.

Greer adds, "When we apply technology that's beneficial to the students, it also makes the university itself look even more professional. We use WritePlacer Plus Online exclusively now."

For more information, contact Gary Greer, director of academic counseling, University of Houston, at greerg@uhd.edu or (713) 221-8101.

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