Students Breathe Easier as CUNY's Proficiency Exam Bites the Dust

Standardized tests are sort of like monsters. Students fear them. They gobble up vast quantities of materials. And when they’re killed, everyone cheers.

This year at the City University of New York, trustees, faculty, and students alike will be rejoicing at the demise of the CUNY Proficiency Exam (CPE), a three-hour writing and quantitative reasoning test that for the past decade all CUNY undergraduates have been required to pass in order to graduate. The test was slayed, quietly, by a vote of the school’s board of trustees in November, two months after a task force it had commissioned to assess the test estimated that in 2010, administering it would cost CUNY $4.92 million, equivalent to the annual salaries of 80 full-time faculty members. The task force added that it “could find no evidence that the quality of writing by CUNY students as measured by the CPE has actually improved in recent years.”

Though many students had grumbled about the test, for most it was little more than a brief, if irritating, rite of passage: According to the CPE Task Force, 94 percent of students passed within three years. But for the remaining 6 percent—which campus liaisons for the test say included many non-native English speakers, students enrolled in technical degree programs, and older students—the CPE was a formidable hurdle, sometimes holding students back from receiving their degrees for years, if not for good.

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The CPE was introduced in 2001, in the wake of public attacks on CUNY by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose special task force on the school system criticized its “loose and confused” academic standards and students’ poor writing. It was an unusual measure, as few public university systems administer certification exams at the midpoint of a student’s college career.

“The faculty protested vigorously,” recalls College of Staten Island faculty member and University Faculty Senate chair Sandi Cooper, who says she and her colleagues viewed the test as a check on the quality of their teaching. “There were testimonies, there were op-ed pieces, there were protests outside of board-of-trustees meetings. There was a lot of name-calling. It was pretty nasty.”

Blandon Casenave, a Hunter College alumnus who protested the introduction of the CPE, recalls, “Many of us felt that this was a way the board and the mayor were using to weed out the people who were less fortunate and made it in, and were pursuing an education amidst other things that we knew they were dealing with, like raising children.”

Ever since, students have flooded into the testing offices of their colleges each semester to pick up their “advance reading”—often an excerpt from a popular book by such authors as Michael Pollan or Oliver Sacks—to read and take notes on in the weeks before the test. On test day, students were given two hours to write an analytical essay drawing connections between the advance reading and a shorter reading provided that day, plus one hour for a quantitative reasoning section that asked them to evaluate several claims in a brief text and explain whether they were supported by accompanying data (for example: “The claim ‘Derek Jeter batted .353 in 1999’ is not supported by figure 1, which shows that in 1999, Derek Jeter batted .349”).

For Candida Almanzar, a 44-year-old originally from the Dominican Republic who has been pursuing her CUNY degree for more than a decade, this proved an insurmountable obstacle. Almanzar ultimately took the CPE seven times over three years while attending Hostos Community College and Lehman College, attending preparation workshops and hiring a private tutor. (Disclosure: The author has worked as a CPE workshop leader at Lehman College, where Almanzar attended two of the author’s workshops.)

Her trouble, Almanzar says, was that when comparing the two readings, she “tried to find out what the connection is, but sometimes I don’t think there’s any connection.” Like many students who say they don’t test well, Almanzar also complains about writing under pressure. “When I have time and can analyze, I can do better,” she says. “And also, when I have time to review and correct the mistakes and do again, I think it’s better.”

Almanzar first began working toward her associate’s degree at CUNY in 1990, but withdrew in order to dedicate herself to an evangelical church she had joined. In 1998, she returned to Hostos and completed all but two classes toward an associate’s in gerontology. In 2000, however, CUNY instituted placement tests called the ACT Skills Tests that students were required to pass in order to exit remedial course work. Almanzar passed the ACT reading and math tests but failed the writing test, which had become a prerequisite for enrolling in her two remaining classes. (Last year, the ACT Skills Tests were replaced by the CUNY Assessment Tests, which serve the same function.) Discouraged, she left Hostos again.

In 2001, Almanzar was hired as a recreation assistant at Amsterdam Nursing Home in Harlem, on the condition that she eventually obtain her associate’s degree. Fearing that she would never pass the ACT or the newly instituted CPE, Almanzar attempted to continue her studies at two different private colleges in the Bronx, attending Touro College and Mercy College for a semester each. She took out a loan and spent more than $5,000 out of pocket for tuition before deciding she could not afford to work toward a degree at a private college.

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