September 20, 2005


TO: Montana Board of Regents

FROM: Jan Clinard, Director of Academic Initiatives

SUBJECT: Writing Proficiency Initiative Information

The Writing Proficiency Steering Committee has drafted a recommendation for Writing Proficiency as an information item for your consideration. We expect action on this item at the November 2005 meeting. Some background information may be useful, particularly for recently-appointed Regents.

In 1995, the Montana Board of Regents approved a policy requiring that the University System adopt a uniform assessment tool to be used in determining if students or prospective students have the basic proficiencies in math and English to provide them a reasonable chance of success in postsecondary education. In February 1998, Deputy Commissioner Stuart Knapp convened a small group of college and high school composition instructors to explore transitions for students from high school English classes to college freshman composition. That work led to the formation of a Composition Standards Committee, appointed jointly by Superintendent Nancy Keenan and Commissioner Dick Crofts, which first met in December 1998. During its first year, the committee studied the Board of Public Education's K-12 Writing Content Standards, high school transcripts, freshman composition syllabi, and commercially available tests.

In 1999-2000, the Office of Public Instruction published "Looking Ahead to College Composition"; a subcommittee evaluated high school and college freshman essays, comparing them to standards and sorting them by "ready" and "not ready" for college; and plans were made to initiate a field test, since none of the readily available tests met criteria set by the committee. Committee Chair Dr. Beverly Ann Chin conveyed the Committee's final report to the Board of Regents in May 2000. In July the Board approved the recommendation to initiate a three-year field test, based on the ACT Writing Sample, which used a rubric that could be adapted to Montanas K-12 Content Standards and allowed for design work and scoring in Montana.

In October, Dr. Jan Clinard was hired to direct the project at OCHE and by November, over 50 high schools had volunteered to participate in the first field test. Since 2001, 21,518 students have taken the Montana Writing Assessment; 626 teachers, college instructors, and pre-service teachers have been trained in scoring and instructional strategies; and 115 high schools have voluntarily participated. Scores have steadily improved. In 2001, 47.6% of all test-takers scored below 3.0. In 2005, 23.6% of all test-takers scored below 3.0 and of those students who indicated that they plan to attend a four-year campus of the Montana University System, 19.6% scored below 3.

In January 2004, recognizing that national college entrance examinations were adding writing samples, much like the writing assessment that had been field-tested in Montana since 2001, the Regents acted to postpone the adoption of specific admissions standards for writing and authorized implementation of the Montana Writing Assessment to serve as an alternative admissions standard to writing portions of the AP, CLEP, ACT, or SAT examinations.

In the spring of 2005, 1,921 students who applied to the University of Montana-Missoula and Montana State University-Bozeman took the ACT optional writing test and 2,033 students submitted SAT scores, which include an essay score. On September 7, the Writing Proficiency Steering Committee met to examine ACT, SAT and Montana Writing Assessment scores and draft a recommendation to the Board.

Having studied the scoring rubrics, student essays, K-12 Content Standards, and expectations for freshman composition, Committee members do not consider a score of 2.5 on the Montana Writing Assessment or its equivalent of 5.0 on the ACT or SAT writing samples to represent proficiency. However, the Committee recommends that the standard be "ramped up" to allow adequate preparation time for schools that have not been participating in the Montana Writing Assessment's professional development, to maintain current momentum, and to give campuses time to study consequences and alternatives. By 2009, Committee members believe that all students, schools, teachers, and campuses will be prepared for the standard that represents proficiency.

In conjunction with the Mathematics Proficiency Standard, passed in July 2003, this Writing Proficiency Standard will ensure that, at the beginning of their programs, students complete courses that teach the foundational skills in mathematics and composition needed for a successful post-secondary experience.