Part II: Review of Norbert Elliot’s and Les Perelman’s (Eds). Writing Assessment in the 21st Century: Essays in Honor of Edward M. White
Elliot, N., & Perelman, L. (Eds.) (2012). Writing Assessment in the 21st Century: Essays in Honor of Edward M. White. New York, NY: Hampton Press.
By Jessica Nastal, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Norbert Elliot and Les Perleman’s subtitle for their introduction to Part II of Writing Assessment in the 21st Century: Essays in Honor of Edward M. White is “Bridging the Two Cultures,” specifically focusing on the cultures of the academic writing assessment community and the corporate educational community. As Ed White’s career illustrates, groundbreaking work can be done when we do bridge the seemingly vast divide. This section, however, makes it abundantly clear that the bridge assessment leaders advocate for will be difficult to build — especially in the midst of the “corporatization” of universities and writing assessment.
The editors highlight how this section tackles “what may realistically be expected as we balance standards for good assessment practices…with the limits of available resources” as each author offers “practical alternatives, informed research design, and an advanced understanding of the construct of writing and of what is required to improve instructional practice” (p. 150). Central to Part II is recognition that writing instruction and assessment are inextricably linked, which is central to White’s body of work. As Irving Peckham reflects on attitudes toward writing assessment in California in the 1970s, he remarks, “I remember the argument at the time as being cost and efficiency against validity and consequence” (p.170). The authors of Section II echo Peckham’s sentiment as they explore academic and corporate discussions about assessment to provide assessment alternatives that address cost effectiveness, rather than simply cost-efficiency, to improve instruction (see William Condon, Chapter 13),
Contrastingly, however, is Jill Burstein of ETS’s chapter, “Fostering Best Practices in Writing Assessment and Instruction with E-rater.” Burstein appears to employ Lee Odell’s idea of the “given-new” exchange (see Chapter 16) by appealing to scholar-teachers’ dedication to the assessment loop and to generative reflection on our practices. Unfortunately, it reads like a chapter from ETS’s powerful marketing department, trying to sell readers on how E-rater and Criterion are “useful, helpful, and dependable,” in White’s words (this fact and these words are mentioned around 20 times in the 12-page chapter). Burstein claims the automated essay scoring technology “has the potential to enhance and support the writing experience of this large, and culturally and linguistically diverse population” (p. 205). She concludes the chapter by explaining how the programs can support teachers and instruction, not replace them, but this chapter leaves me questioning whether a cultural bridge can be built between corporate educational community and academic writing assessment community.
But as every other chapter makes clear, writing assessment — and White’s work — is built on a dedication to “better fit with our theories and values of language, reading, writing, research, and pluralist democracy” (Broad, p. 261), not to reduce writing to 9 characteristics of grammar, usage, and mechanics. I heed White’s call to work beyond our disciplinary boundaries, but I am wary. I wonder about the reach of ETS and its fellow organizations as their “cost-effective” practices marginalize multilingual and low-income students (see Anne Herrington & Charles Moran, Chapter 12). I am concerned about the increasing push for computer-based writing assessment and how that depersonalizes the acts of writing, interpretation, and communication. Finally, I don’t believe automated essay scoring provides “meaningful and consistent feedback” (p. 204), at least in its current state. Considering writing and assessment in such a limited way undermines, in Bob Broad’s language, “what we really value” about writing assessment.
As Broad and Diane Kelly-Riley (Chapter 8) demonstrate — and as Elliot and Perelman begin the collection — the academic writing assessment community is driven by our collaborations on local, regional, and national levels. It’s what motivates dynamic criteria mapping; what helped Washington State University develop a model, cross-campus portfolio assessment system and Colorado School of Mines engage in critical reflection about their interdisciplinary first-year courses; what encourages us to consider the roles of placement, curricula, response, online instruction, and the constantly-evolving world of writing. The conversations we have as a community, on the WPA-L and in departmental meetings about student writing, are essential to improve teaching and learning in theoretically and ethically sound ways.