COVID-19 forces changes to Writing Proficiency Exam

The Sunday, Oct. 25 deadline for submitting this fall’s Writing Proficiency Exam is fast approaching. This year is the first time the exam is being delivered remotely through Canvas.
In the past, this exam has been conducted in person on two dates in October and two in March. Students have had the choice of taking it in a computer lab or with a pencil and paper.
Professor of Writing and Literature and exam coordinator Tyrone Shaw explained that the changes in procedure were necessary due to COVID-19, concerns about students’ well-being driving the change.
Rather than spending three hours in a room with 20 other students taking the same assessment, students will submit their exam at any point between Monday, Oct. 12 and midnight on Sunday, Oct. 25 on the Canvas course site.
Students still had to register for the exam, which is listed as ENG 3999 NJ01 on the portal. Shaw said exam information has been disseminated in three different ways.
“A few weeks ago, I sent an informational email to all students at NVU-Johnson,” Shaw said. “It contained everything students need to know about the exam. The same information is on the portal and within the Canvas site itself.”
Students registered for the exam by emailing Sandra Noyes, staff assistant for the Writing and Literature department and the Humanities department. Registration closed Monday, Oct. 19.
This new way of delivering the exam has a number of advantages for students, according to Shaw.
“One of the things I do like about this is that spell check and grammar check are available to all students,” Shaw said. In past semesters, these tools were disabled for those taking the exam on the computers.
Despite the changes implemented for this semester, some aspects remain the same. Prep sessions are still offered for students on multiple days, and the exam will still be graded the way it always has been.
“Nothing has changed in this respect,” Shaw said. “Each exam will have two readers, and if a clear decision about pass or fail hasn’t been reached, it will go to a third reader.”
There are currently 87 students registered for the fall sitting.
One of the questions that arose when planning for this semester’s exam was how to prevent cheating considering the exam will not be proctored as it has been in the past.
Shaw felt this was not an issue, saying, “Our hope is, and this has been the case in the past, that most students approach this honestly and will simply choose a question, do the appropriate research, [and] respond to the question with specific, concrete evidence.”
He also noted that all exams will be filtered through a plagiarism detector upon submission on Canvas.
For Shaw, perhaps the most interesting part about this new change is to see if student performance differs compared to previous semesters. Most recently, the pass rate has hovered around 80 percent.
“Let’s assume there is a big difference. Then the question would be ‘to what do we attribute this, and what do we make of that difference?’” Shaw said. “I predict there will not be much of a difference.”
Shaw also pointed out that the three-hour time constraint does not apply right now, and students can approach this with less anxiety and stress.
“This is all to the good as far as I’m concerned, and if students feel better about the exam being done this way, then great,” Shaw said “I don’t want this to be a source of pain, anguish, suffering, fear of eternal damnation or any other unpleasant consequence.”