Analytical Writing Placement Examination

Case Study


All students who enter the University of California as freshmen must demonstrate the writing skills necessary to succeed in lower-division University courses by fulfilling the Entry Level Writing Requirement.  Each April, newly admitted freshmen who have not satisfied the requirement via qualifying test scores or college coursework are asked to take the University’s Analytical Writing Placement Examination (AWPE).  The AWPE is a two-hour examination in which students draft a written response to a single essay topic.

Since the 2003-2004 academic year, the costs associated with developing, administering, scoring, and managing the exam have exceeded related revenues.  Although the University was successful in favorably renegotiating the vendor contract, factors that prevented the program from being self-sustaining in intervening years include:

•    Scoring the exam in-person during a “Big Read” weekend in Berkeley, which involved travel costs for approximately 200 faculty from across all campuses;
•    Reduced revenue from exam fees due to declining numbers of test-takers (the number of test-takers has declined from a high of 19,559 in 2002 to just over 17,000 students in 2010); and
•    Increasing numbers of low-income test-takers who qualify for fee waivers.

For example, in 2010 the AWPE program costs were just under $1.2 million whereas fee revenue was just $781,221.



In an attempt to re-establish the AWPE as a financially self-sustaining enterprise, the University implemented the following cost containment and revenue-enhancing strategies during 2010:

•    Shifted the “Big Read” to an online reading system to eliminate costs associated with travel, accommodations, and food required to convene readers to evaluate exams in person
•    Reduced mailing costs by posting exam results on the campus student portal website
•    Reduced the number of test sites commensurate with estimated freshman enrollment reductions
•    Renegotiated vendor contract to reduce administrative costs
•    Raised exam fees by $25, from $65 to $90
In order to maintain equitable access to this test, the University continued to provide fee waivers for low-income students



A realignment of costs and revenues for AWPE allowed the University to close fiscal year 2009-2010 with a modest surplus.  In addition, with full implementation of the online scoring process, the University expects to reduce expenses by approximately $245,000, or 20%, between 2010 and 2011.  An additional savings of $100,000 in expenses is estimated for 2012.



Despite the increased efficiency in the exam delivery, processing, and scoring, there are factors that have caused the University to plan for increases in the exam fees for subsequent years.  These include:

•    A continuing multi-year trend of decreasing numbers of freshmen students who need to take the test; and
•    An increasing proportion of test-takers who come from low-income families, and therefore, qualify for a waiver of the AWPE fee.


Initial investment

The development of the online scoring system required an up-front one-time investment of $350,000.  Other changes were implemented without investment.


Fiscal results, current and anticipated

With planned, gradual increases to the exam fees and process efficiencies, the University expects AWPE will again become financially self-sustaining.


Current action and next steps

To ensure that future exam costs do not exceed revenue, the University increased the fee for the AWPE by $20 (from $90 to $110) for the 2010-11 test administration and, if needed, will again by $10 (from $110 to $120) for the 2011-12 test administration.  The University will maintain its long-standing practice of not charging low-income students educational testing fees.  Ongoing monitoring of the number of fee-paying test-takers may allow UC to adjust these planned fee increases.


Concluding statement

The University is achieving the goal of financial self-sustainability for AWPE by using technology to create a more efficient scoring process and by creatively restructuring the exam processing where possible.  While faculty regret the loss of the “Big Read” experience as an opportunity to discuss the teaching of writing, first-year reports regarding their online scoring experiences were positive.