Review of Reclaiming Accountability: Improving Writing Programs through Large-Scale Assessments

By Nicholas J. Learned, Howard Community College

Sharer, W., Morse, T. A., Eble, M. F., & Banks, W. P. (Eds.). (2016). Reclaiming accountability: Improving writing programs through large-scale assessments. Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

Where some see challenges, others see opportunity; in Reclaiming Accountability: Improving Writing Programs through Large-Scale Assessments, Wendy Sharer, Tracy Ann Morse, Michelle F. Eble, and William P. Banks (2016) encourage writing faculty to greet accreditation and large-scale assessment not as impositions threatening to unseat their pedagogical commitments but as “kairotic moments” (p. 65) through which they might develop, define, and achieve programmatic goals. With their collection, the editors thus hope to serve readers in three ways: by offering insight into “the goals and limits of large-scale writing assessment from both the perspective of the accrediting bodies that require it and the writing instructors and WPAs who design, implement, and, ideally, benefit from it” (p. 3); by helping them “consider the strengths and weaknesses of assessment-driven initiatives” (p. 3); and by providing examples of how they might “use ongoing accreditation and assessment imperatives to cultivate productive campus-wide conversations that increase faculty members’ ability to meet students’ writing and learning needs” (p. 4).

To these ends, Sharer and colleagues organize their collection around three areas, the first of which aims to provide readers with the background and context they will need to navigate the rhetorical situations of assessment and accreditation. In Parts Two and Three, contributors hope to provide strategies for using assessment to “enhance curricula and add programmatic support” (Sharer et al., p. 65) while also providing the kinds of concrete examples colleagues outside of writing studies often find most persuasive.

In Part One, contributors Cindy Moore, Peggy O’Neill, and Angela Crow (Chapter 1) caution that the increasing reliance on big data means WPAs must take active roles in assessment processes to preserve the agency of writing teachers (p. 31). Echoing Moore and colleagues, Shirley K. Rose (Chapter 3) encourages readers to see accreditors as “partners with writing program faculty and administrators in providing a social good by making the work of higher education both visible and legible to those it serves” (pp. 52-53).

Part Two shows how assessment offers opportunities for program and curriculum development, providing readers with a “toolkit” for enlisting faculty in the processes of determining outcomes, designing curricular options, measuring the impact of curricular changes, and “discussing strategies for improving student learning where assessment demonstrates a need” (Sharer et al., p. 65). David Weed, Tulora Roeckers, and Melanie Burdick (Chapter 6) offer advice on balancing standardization with instructor autonomy, and Malkiel Choseed (Chapter 7) hopes to show that assessment, “if done thoughtfully, [can be] one tool for making institutions a better place for students and faculty by increasing real student learning” (130). Jonathan Elmore and Teresa Van Sickle (Chapter 4) show how assessment results can be leveraged to garner institutional support for Writing Centers, Online Writing Labs, and Writing Across the Curriculum initiatives. While others, such as Jessica Parker and Jane Chapman Vigil (Chapter 5), and Karen Nulton and Rebecca Ingalls (Chapter 9), see value in the assessment process itself, finding that “participating in accreditation-driven assessment can actually foster relationships and help colleagues uncover shared values and goals” (Nulton & Ingalls, p. 145). Together, these contributors provide concrete strategies for using assessment to accomplish programmatic goals.

Part Three focuses on faculty development, demonstrating how assessment “can [provide] the impetus for renewed, reinvigorated university-wide conversations [about how faculty] can help students develop as writers” (Sharer et al., p. 211). Polina Chemishanova and Cynthia Miecznikowski (Chapter 11), Linda Adler-Kassner and Lorna Gonzalez (Chapter 12), and Angela Green, Iris Saltiel, and Kyle Christiansen (Chapter 15) all provide chapters showing how they used large-scale assessment to argue for increased faculty development. And Joyce Neff and Remica Bingham-Risher (Chapter 14) demonstrate how faculty development can be improved through Faculty Learning Outcomes assessment. Collectively, these contributors show outcomes assessment can improve the development of teachers as well as students.

Since it is not the editors’ intention, readers won’t find much critical discussion of the sometimes-deleterious pressures exerted by accreditation and assessment mandates. Additionally, the editors and contributors acknowledge that, given the contextual nature of writing instruction, the strategies provided would likely have to be adapted somewhat to work well in other institutional contexts.

However, pragmatic readers will likely find value in this pivot from merely appeasing administrators and accreditors to taking active, collaborative roles in assessment. Further, many of the chapters are accompanied by comprehensive appendices readers can draw from for useful examples of assessment reports, rubrics, outcomes and objectives, and course evaluations. Through this collection, Sharer and colleagues show that with accountability comes access to the levers of institutional action, a valuable observation for those who wish to realize assessment-driven growth or who have been thrust into the high-stakes—but also, as the contributors emphasize, potentially high-reward—crucible of assessment.

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