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If you can't write, then UNI says you can't graduate

First ''Johnny'' was accused of not knowing how to read. Now it appears that ''Johnny'' is off at college, and judging by a rash of articles in the news media, he may have learned how to read, but now he can't write.

The situation is apparently serious enough that colleges with writing programs are prepared to boast about them.

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The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) in Cedar Falls adopted a writing competency examination as a graduation requirement in the fall of 1978. Designed to test minimum competency in writing, it is part of a new all-university emphasis on writing.

Like many colleges and universities, UNI dropped its composition requirements in 1970, but several years ago the faculty began to be alarmed about the quality of student writing. Parents and students were also concerned. Because of staffing problems, the university could not afford to reinstate the former two semesters of required writing courses.

Instead a faculty committee designed an essay exam which is administered twice each semester. The students are given three topics from which to choose, such as ''The Importance of a College Education'' or ''The Most Important Issues in the November Election.'' They have two hours in which to write a 500-word essay on one of the topics.

Each exam is then read independently by two members of the English department , who determine whether the essay meets the prescribed competency criteria. These standards appear on the exam instructions and have been widely distributed on campus.

The essay, however, doesn't have to be perfect. The reader keeps a tally and takes points off for each mechanical and structural error. The essay must have a recognizable thesis and logical points to support it. The paragraphs must have an orderly structure, and the sentences must be well written.

A student who does not pass the exam the first time can take the test each time it's given, and nothing appears on his permanent record until he passes.

UNI provides a number of alternatives for students who do not pass the exam. They can get free help in the learning skills center, which provides special small classes and tutoring, and several members of the English faculty frequently take time out to give help to students who are having difficulty.

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''Sometimes one semester in a writing class is not enough to make up for 12 years of writing neglect,'' Prof. Barbara Lounsberry, a member of the Competency Committee, says. ''If a student needs a little extra help, I find time to give it.''

The results of the test indicate that 50.2 percent of the students who have taken the exam have passed; 49.8 percent have not. Four transfer students have not graduated on time because of the exam.

But Professor Lounsberry asserts that not one of those students is angry at the university. She explains, ''I have gone over the exams with each student, comparing the work with the criteria, and each one has agreed that he or she obviously did not meet the standards.''

There have been a number of positive effects as a result of the new writing policy, both within the university and without.

First of all, students have responded by applying in large numbers for the spaces available in 18 classes set up to teach writing fundamentals.

Second, because the call for greater writing proficiency came from the entire university, the Competency Comitttee is conducting a survey to determine just how much students are required to write in various classes. ''Teaching good writing cannot be solely the responsibility of the English Department,'' Prof. Evelyn Wood says. ''It must be university-wide.''

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