Special Introduction | Winter 2022

By Megan Von Bergen, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Alternative assessment practices, especially (but not only) labor-based grading and contract grading, consistently tie it to social justice. As recently as 2019, Asao Inoue framed labor-based contract grading as a partial response to ongoing racial violence in the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, interest in alternative forms of classroom assessment skyrocketed, as educators searched for ways to meet these exigencies. This shift is reflected in new publications, among them a special issue in the Journal of Writing Assessment (2020), standalone articles in the WPA Journal (Craig 2020), and briefer posts on FEN Blog. Teachers want to adopt assessment practices that do justice, especially amid injustices.

What we know about alternative assessment practices, however, including their potential for social justice, is limited. Research on labor-based grading remains slim (Cowan 2020), often emerging from the scholar’s own teaching experiences or using unclear definitions of contract grading (Albracht et al 2018). This reality complicates educators’ efforts to connect work on labor-based grading to their local classroom and programmatic contexts, and the particular justice those spaces require. Scholarship has also challenged the assumption that alternative assessment is by nature a just practice. In some cases, scholars emphasize that if labor-based grading is used inappropriately, it can perpetuate racial injustice among teachers as well as students (Craig). In other cases, writers suggest that the focus on racial justice may gloss over other dimensions of identity and social justice, among them disability and neurodiversity (Carillo, reviewed here by Sims). This emerging trend in assessment scholarship invites a closer look at how our assessment theories play out in our classrooms and push us as teacher-scholars towards closer analysis and more nuanced uptake, to ensure our assessment choices meet the desired ends.

Assessment has the potential to be a key driver for equity in our classrooms. Where assessment historically closedthe gates to students deemed undeserving, assessment can open those same gates, creating more opportunities for students to flourish (Poe et al 2016). This is a hopeful and radical vision for writing assessment, but to meet it requires returning to, challenging, and deepening our concept of what justice among our students and fellow teachers requires, along with forging alliances with educators and administrators belonging to historically minoritized groups (Perryman-Clark 2016). This process, of learning about and taking up new methods of assessment in partnership with our colleagues, is a continual, iterative one, benefiting from ongoing engagement with scholarship.

The value of a set of reviews like those included here is to jumpstart that reflection. Reading these reviews invites us as educators, administrators, and/or researchers to ask hard questions of our assessment practices. The reviews also highlight important texts and resources, to nuance and develop our understanding of how assessment may foster – or hinder – justice in the writing classroom.

Reviews included in this collection

“Writing Assessment Literacy,” Deborah Crusan. Reviewed by Madeline Crozier.

Crozier ably situates Crusan’s work within the larger collection in which it appears –– a reference guide to research questions in language and literacy education –– and sums up both the concept of writing assessment literacy and its value for students, teachers, and administrators and supervisors. Crusan defines writing assessment literacy as a framework combining “skills and knowledge” to guide assessment practices and suggests that writing assessment literacy can help reconcile the existing gap between assessment theory and actual teacher training and classroom practice. Crozier concludes her review by summarizing the resources and research questions Crusan forwards, among them the interaction between teaching practice and theories of writing assessment, and highlights Crusan’s call for additional research. Crozier’s review of Crusan’s work is useful for scholars evaluating their own assessment literacy and/or administrators engaged in teacher training and support.

“Communal Justicing: Writing Assessment, Disciplinary Infrastructure, and the Case for Critical Language Awareness,” Gere et al. Reviewed by Cassandra Goff.

As Goff’s review notes, “Communal Justicing” calls Writing Studies to collectively accept the responsibility to be honest about its discriminatory past and work for equity across its policies and publications. Such work hinges on critical language awareness, a term which emphasizes how concepts of “proper” language use are connected to power and the need to challenge these connections in language classrooms and language education policies. Goff focuses their review on Gere et al’s revisions, centering language and language use, to the Framework for Student Success in Postsecondary Writing. Goff also notes the article’s lack of attention to critical language awareness in two-year and community colleges, pointing out that such work may be more robust given that such colleges have more diverse student populations. This article is valuable for those in a position to work with colleagues across institutions, via channels such as the NCTE and CCCC, to sustain disciplinary changes that support a more critical approach to the teaching and assessment of language. 

Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (And What to Do Instead), edited Susan Blum. Reviewed by Michelle Tram Nguyen

Nguyen’s review offers an expansive view of what makes the Ungrading collection compelling: the opportunity to hear from educators, across varied institutional contexts, about how they make ungrading work in their own contexts. As Nguyen describes, practitioners from high school teachers to computer science and chemistry professors contribute to this volume, describing their motivations for ungrading and their choices in adapting it to their classrooms. The wide range of experiences assists practitioners in connecting the text to their own experiences and developing assessment practices that center learning and student autonomy. Nguyen concludes by pointing out that the collection may be relevant for rhetoric and writing instructors looking to develop more equitable forms of assessment. 

The Hidden Inequities of Labor-Based Contract Grading, Ellen Carillo. Reviewed by Mikenna Sims.

Sims provides a thorough summary of Carillo’s key argument: that the dominant focus in labor-based grading research on raciolinguistic equity bypasses other forms of inequity, among them disability and neurodiversity, and that a more intersectional approach to student identity is required. Sims calls attention in particular to Carillo’s observation that labor-based grading takes for granted that labor requires approximately equal amounts of time or effort from students, when in reality varying socioeconomic situations, dis/abilities, and neurodiversity may alter students’ experience with the course and require more or less labor. Carillo argues this approach works against equity in labor-based contract grading, as research does not conclusively show that contracts work towards racial equity, either. Sim’s review, and Carillo’s text, are valuable for teachers and researchers interested in engaging with hard questions about how adoption of even more equitable forms of assessment may work against social justice.


As Inoue reminds us, assessment is ecological, its function(s) in our classrooms and programs shaped by people and places as well as specific practices. There is a great deal of ecological diversity in the reviews collected here: a wide range of assessment practices (Nguyen), a wide range of people, from disabled or neurodiverse students (Sims) to second language teachers (Crozier) and STEM educators (Nyguen); and a wide range of theoretical frames, from assessment literacy (Crozier) to sociolinguistics (Goff) and intersectionality (Sims). Individually, the reviews (and the texts they publicize) help composition instructors and administrators to address specific situations they may encounter in their own institutional landscape. Together, the reviews reinforce that assessment – a practice too often taken for granted as part-and-parcel of writing education – is theoretically and practically complex. To ensure assessment is equitable requires educators to make savvy decisions based on their own commitments, their students’ identities and experiences, and the institutional and geographic places they inhabit. This complexity is underscored in texts that (like Carillo’s) highlight potential injustices in assessment practices framed as socially just. Yet more thorough information about the concepts and practices key to composition assessment can only help our research and practice. If the work of assessment is to open the gates to student learning and opportunity, then these reviews provide a key for those gates, inviting further inquiry into justice and assessment, in our classrooms and across our institutions.

Works Cited

Albracht, L., Harahap, A., Pratt, A., Rodrigo, R., Russell, C. (2019). Response to Joyce Olewski Inman and Rebecca A. Powell’s “In the Absence of Grades: Dissonance and Desire in Course-Contract Classrooms.” College Composition and Communication, 71(1), 145–58.

Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Carillo, E. C. (2021). The hidden inequities in labor-based contract grading. Utah State University Press.

Cowan, M. (2020) A legacy of grading contracts for composition. The Journal of Writing Assessment, 13(2). http://journalofwritingassessment.org/article.php?article=150.

Craig, S. (2021). Your contract grading ain’t it. WPA Journal, 44(3), 145–46.

Gere, A. R., Curzan, A., Hammond, J. W., Hughes, S. Li, R., Moos, A., Smith, K., Van Zanen, K., Wheeler, K. L., and Zanders, C. J. (2021). Communal justicing: Writing assessment, disciplinary infrastructure, and the case for critical language awareness. College Composition and Communication, 72(3), 384-412.

Hennessy, J. (2022). Roll call: Labor logs as an additional method of accounting for classroom attendance. FEN Blog, Composition Studies, ​​https://compstudiesjournal.com/2021/12/13/roll-call-labor-logs-as-an-additional-method-of-accounting-for-classroom-attendance/.

Inoue, A.B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/inoue/ecologies.pdf.

Inoue, A.B. (2019). How do we language so people stop killing each other, or what do we do about white supremacy? Conference on College Composition and Communication, Chicago, IL. Chair’s Address.

Poe, M., Inoue, A.B., Elliot, N. (2018). Introduction: The end of isolation. In M. Poe, A.B. Inoue, N. Elliot (Eds.), Writing assessment, social justice, and the advancement of opportunity (pp. 3–38). WAC Clearinghouse, https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/assessment/intro.pdf.

Perryman-Clark, S. M. (2016). Who we are(n’t) assessing: Racializing language and writing assessment in writing program administration. College English, 79(2), 206–11.