All Hampden-Sydney students must pass the Rhetoric Proficiency Exam (Rhetoric 200) before they may be graduated from the College. The RPE is a three-hour essay exam which tests a student's ability to invent a reasonable and thoughtful thesis "on a subject not foreign to the student's experience" (Faculty Resolution, 1978) and to construct a logical and well-supported argument on that thesis. The essays are judged holistically on the basis of the quality and clarity of the thesis, the development of the idea, and the accuracy and grace of the language used to express the idea.
The dates and times for the exams are included on all College calendars. Regular administrations of the exam take place in October and March. Students first take the exam in their fourth semester at the College (or, in the case of some transfer students, immediately upon matriculating at the College. See the Rhetoric Program policy on transfer students.) Students eligible to take the exam receive letters informing them of the date, time, and place of the Rhetoric Proficiency Exam; the letters also advise them to prepare for the exam with the help of the Writing Center staff. If a student does not pass the exam the first time, he may take it again two more times (or until he enters the first semester of his senior year, when he reaches his 89th credit hour). Between administrations of the exam, the student may--and should--review his failing exam with the Writing Center staff and, under its supervision, practice to improve his writing skills. Any student who fails the Rhetoric Proficiency Exam three times or who reaches his 89th credit hour without passing the exam will be enrolled in Rhetoric 200 in the next semester. Students may continue to take the exam while they are enrolled in Rhetoric 200, but they must be enrolled in Rhetoric 200.
There are two special administrations of the Rhetoric Proficiency Exam for which only students who must enroll in Rhetoric 200 in the upcoming semester are eligible. (Transfer students entering the College in that semester may also take the exam at the time of these special administrations.) These exams are given in August, before the fall term begins and in January, before the spring term begins.
The Nature of the Exam
The RPE is a three-hour essay exam which tests a student's ability to invent a reasonable and thoughtful thesis "on a subject not foreign to the student's experience" (Faculty Resolution, 1978) and to construct a reasonably logical and well-supported argument on that thesis. The essays are judged holistically on the basis of the quality and clarity of the thesis, the development of the idea, and the accuracy and grace of the language used to express the idea.
Students do not know ahead of time what subject they will be asked to write about on the exam. When the exam begins, proctors (rhetoric staff members) give students a part of a longer essay or the whole of a short essay to read. Attached to the essay are three or four questions, which the students also read. Students are instructed to write a well-supported, well-organized essay (around 500 words in length) that addresses one of the issues raised by the questions. They are also instructed to use their time carefully, reserving time for pre-writing tasks (brain-storming, note-taking, and/or outlining), writing the draft, and rewriting, revising, and proofreading the final copy.
Grading Procedures and Policies
Grading proficiency exams usually takes one to two weeks, depending on the number of students who take the exam in a given administration. Each exam--its writer anonymous--is read by two readers who read independently, without knowledge of the other's score. In cases where the two readers disagree about the quality of an exam, a third reader also grades the exam. Graders are drawn from the entire College faculty, though first readers are generally rhetoric staff members. All graders have been trained in a day-long grading workshop.
Proficiency exams are graded holistically according to a 6-point scale--a method recommended by Educational Testing Service for exams of this sort. Readers receive somewhere between 8 and 15 exams, and are given 2-3 days to grade those exams. Each of the first two readers reviews the sheet describing the 6 points on the scale and then reads the essay exams, matching the qualities of each essay to the descriptions of the 6 points. Readers circle the number (on a grading sheet) they believe best describes a given essay; they must make a choice among the 6 points. They also write brief comments on the scoring sheet about the particular strengths and weaknesses of the essay. If they feel an essay is "strong" or "weak" in a particular grading category (a strong 3, for example, or a weak 4), they may indicate as much in their written comments. No reader marks the essays themselves.
The Program director tabulates and totals the scores for the exams. Students need a combined score of at least 7, or one score of 3 and one of 4, to pass the exam.
Students receive letters informing them that they passed or failed the exam. In either case, they may review the exam with a member of the Writing Center staff and get a xeroxed copy of it (the exams themselves are kept on file for five years), find out their exact score, and get typed copies of the readers' comments. Proficiency graders receive a statistical review of the grading results for that administration of the exam along with a brief assessment of their own grading practices, relative to other graders' for that exam.