I was raised in a writing program where we administered a first day writing sample in order to confirm a student’s placement. Usually, there was no need to change that placement but occasionally the sample indicated a student needed to be moved down (or up) the ladder of writing courses. It was an imperfect system (aren’t they all?) but it’s what we had.
What’s strange is that in my current program we still use writing samples, even though there’s no placement to confirm. In Florida, all remediation must take place at the level of the community college, which is to say that we can’t offer any basic writing courses—even if it’s clear a student needs one. It gets worse, I’ve heard through the grapevine that the Floridian powers-that-be are proposing to do away with developmental reading and writing entirely by guaranteeing that anyone who graduates high school can go straight into the standard FYC course, ENC 1101.
Bracketing the wisdom of such a move (if it comes to pass), I am left with the question of the first day writing sample. The way I explain it to new teachers in our program is that it allows us to get a sense of where the class is as a whole in terms of writing and also allows us to identify very early on students who might need extra help.
But of course, we are a local manifestation gnarled by institutional inertia and state bureaucracy. What about you? Do you do a first day writing sample? Does it do anything?