Review of Diane Kelly-Riley and Norbert Elliot’s Improving Outcomes: Disciplinary Writing, Local Assessment, and the Aim of Fairness

Reviewed by Anthony Lince, University of California, San Diego

Kelly-Riley, D., & Elliot, N. (Eds.). (2020). Improving outcomes: Disciplinary writing, local assessment, and the aim of fairness. Modern Language Association.

When it comes to assessment, our field is currently having challenging, but much-needed, conversations—some of which are focused on equity, linguistic justice, and student agency. Asao Inoue (2019), for example, has pushed back against traditional grading practices and, is instead, in favor of labor-based grading contracts, which, Inoue asserts, “attempt to form an inclusive, more diverse ecological place, one that can be antiracist and anti-White supremacist by its nature (p. 13). These conversations around assessment, however, aren’t exclusive to our field. In Susan D. Blum’s (2020) edited collection, Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), educators in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields all wrestle with how they can move away from grading practices that are punitive and not student-centered. (For an excellent overview of this book, check out Michelle Tram Nguyen’s recent review on the JWA Reading List.)

Improving Outcomes: Disciplinary Writing, Local Assessment, and the Aim of Fairness—a collection edited by Diane Kelly-Riley and Norbert Elliot—contributes to this important conversation on assessment with a focus on fairness and assessment across the disciplines. Kelly-Riley and Elliot note that, “within this collection, fairness operates as an integrative principle” (p. 1). Though, fairness isn’t thought of as a monolithic idea that can be applied to all fields. Instead, as Anne Ruggles Gere makes clear in her foreword, “by recognizing and valuing the discourses of a given discipline, writing assessment can enact fairness in assessment rather than applying inflexible standards to all fields” (p. vi). She continues: “the best assessment is constructed locally, and, for college students, the disciplines in which they enroll become a local context” (p. vi). Naturally, then, to discuss this varied, and situated, idea of fairness, the contributors in this collection span the disciplines—from nursing to engineering, writing studies, and architecture—and are from a range of academic contexts: two- and four-year to public and private institutions. Constructed around putting “fairness at the center” of writing instruction and assessment (p. 5), this collection is divided into four parts: “Values,” “Foundational Issues,” “Disciplinary Writing,” and “Location.”

The contributors of part one, “Values,” all examine the unique needs of students within specific academic contexts and how educational values should be tied to those needs. Mya Poe begins part one with her essay, “A Matter of Aim: Disciplinary Writing, Writing Assessment, and Fairness.” She turns to assessment research to “examine two common frames for writing assessment in the disciplines—program accreditation and classroom research” (p. 17), concluding that considerations around student fairness are often ignored in both frames. Ruth Osorio’s essay, “A Disability-as-Insight Approach to Multimodal Assessment,” lays out ways in which a disability-as-insight model can be used “as a path that merges fairness—designing assessments that allow for diverse and flexible methods for achieving the primary goal of an assignment—and social justice” (p. 29). Brooke A. Carlson and Cari Ryan, in “Fairness as Pedagogy: Uniformity, Transparency, and Equity through Trajectory-Based Responses to Writing in Hawai’i,” use rubrics as a tool to promote fairness by being transparent with students about the evaluative methods in which they will be graded.

The contributors of part two, “Foundational Issues,” outline educational measurement as socially situated. The first essay argues for seeing assessment as an evidentiary argument—with a focus on students developing competencies in valued activities (Mislevy). Benander and Refaei, in their essay, detail how their basic writing courses have outcomes that are fairly assessed “through shared rubrics tailored to the interests of each student” (p. 67). The next essay explores how peer-feedback can be embedded in classrooms as a means to promote fairness (Hart-Davidson and Meeks). Erick Montenegro, in the penultimate essay of part two, asserts that “assessment efforts must become culturally responsive” to better understand the learning gains made by students (p. 93). The last essay in part two argues for faculty members to learn about various disciplinary perspectives to create shared learning outcomes at specific institutions (Schneider and Hennings).

In part three, “Disciplinary Writing,” the scholars focus on assessments that are situated within their specific educational contexts. The first essay argues for a strengthened connection between high school and college literacies (Farris). The next essay’s authors discuss how they use evidence-based assessment in their first-year composition program to promote programmatic fairness (Buyserie, Macklin, Frye, and Ericsson). Singer-Freeman and Bastone, in their essay, argue for reflective writing in a child development course to help students think deeply about their own lives and the course content. In an architecture writing course, Hogrefe and Briller argue for reflective practices that can help their diverse cohort of students. In their essay, Maneval and Ward discuss how the incorporation of nursing-specific writing genre assignments in nursing classes could elevate writing itself as a practice. Williams, in the last essay of part three, discusses issues of fairness as it relates to assessment within science, engineering, and mathematics courses.

“Location,” part four, closes the collection by having essays that move beyond traditional four-year institutions. Rasmussen and Reid consider questions around transfer and equal opportunity at their two-year college. Whithaus, in the next essay, considers how “localized assessments can attend to fairness, as well as validity and reliability,” not only face-to-face but online and in hybrid classes as well (p. 213). Rhodes, in the final essay of part four and in this edited collection, discusses accreditation as something that can, and should, “affirm institutional commitment to fairness for students’ access to, and achievement of, quality learning” (p. 225).

Taken together, there were parts of this collection that strongly resonated with me. A disability-as-insight approach for multimodal assessment (Osorio) helps me consider the ways I can construct my classrooms and assignments to best help all learners succeed, especially students who learn in non-normative ways. Mya Poe’s essay was also illuminating as she illustrated the racial harm that placement tests can have on certain students. And Hogrefe and Briller, in their essay on an architecture writing program, provided a wonderful message for any teacher or program director to take away: to have authenticity of curriculum, “students [should be] placed at the center of our efforts and treated as colleagues” (p. 170).

On the other hand, the essays in this collection that had a focus on using rubrics weren’t, for me, all that convincing. Those authors claimed that rubrics can be fair because they are transparent for students. However, I question this claim, and I wonder how transparent racially situated biases can be through the use of rubrics. Furthermore, in my experience, rubrics seem to erase individuality, not promote diverse thinking. If fairness is the goal, rubrics seem to hinder that outcome.

With that noted, the conversations in this book centered on fairness and assessment are crucial for our field and others to have. Any rhetoric and writing studies scholar can find engaging ideas here, but I’d specifically recommend this collection to new rhet/comp scholars entering the field and/or to those in other disciplines wanting to integrate writing into their programs—and, by extension, assessment of that writing—with the aim of being fair.


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

Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. WAC Clearinghouse

Nguyen, M. (2022). [Review of the book Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead)]. The Journal of Writing Assessment Reading List.