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.

Looking ahead in 2018

Dear readers,

In 2017, the JWA Reading List published three reviews under the leadership of David Bedsole and Bruce Bowles, Jr. Justin Vaught’s take on The problem with education technology (Fink & Brown, 2016) drew our attention to conversations around mechanized assessment and socioeconomic disparity; Julie Cook’s review of A rhetoric of reflection (Yancey, 2016) highlighted questions central to the work of teacher-scholar-practitioners: “What do we value? Why do we value it? How do we relate that knowledge? How do we observe its use? How do we assess it?”; and Heather Falconer’s recent review of Assessing and improving student writing in college (Walvoord, 2014) focused on writing inclusion and programmatic approaches to assessment.

In 2018, we invite authors at all levels of experience to submit brief reviews of current writing assessment scholarship in addition to reviews focused on practical applications of assessment theory—how do foundational texts in the field work in practice? We also encourage potential authors to contact us to discuss ideas for reviews.  Submission guidelines are here.   

We are delighted to serve as the new JWA Readling List editors, and to welcome Gita DasBender and Skyler Meeks as they begin their two-year term as Editorial Assistants.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Jessica Nastal-Dema and Ti Macklin

A Review of Barbara E. Walvoord’s Assessing and improving student writing in college

By Heather M. Falconer, Northeastern University

Walvoord, B.E. (2014). Assessing and improving student writing in college: A guide for institutions, general education, departments, and classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Barbara E. Walvoord’s (2014) Assessing and improving student writing in college: A guide for institutions, general education, departments, and classrooms provides a contemporary and pragmatic approach to writing program administration in higher education. Without attempting to standardize Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID), Walvoord works to simplify the institutionalization of WAC/WID by offering a resource to administrators, departments, and faculty alike.

Readers should be aware that this text is not intended for newcomers to the field – it is a resource for those who are already familiar with and wish to formalize WAC/WID initiatives. It is also not meant to be read cover-to cover, as Walvoord anticipates readers will focus only on chapters relevant to them. As such, the content has been distilled into subsections of 150 words or less, with extensive bibliographic resources for further exploration. This approach makes for both quick reading and an effective reminder of best practices in WAC/WID implementation.

Chapter One provides an important orientation to all readers as it establishes basic principles and clarifies terminology. Walvoord reminds readers what “we mean by ‘writing’,” noting that it goes far beyond considerations of grammar and punctuation, is situated rhetorically, and “is enmeshed with critical thinking, information literacy, problem solving, qualitative reasoning, and other skills” (p. 1). The chapter reminds readers of the various ways good writing can be defined and assessed, and lays the groundwork to ensure instructors, program directors, and administrators share a language of writing and assessment.

Rather than transition to the classroom, where WAC/WID efforts are most actualized, Walvoord focuses Chapter Two on the concerns relevant to those working at the institutional level, as well as those concerned with general education as a whole. The chapter devotes space to the exigence for WAC/WID program implementation and assessment, and includes a discussion of the data administrators collect in the early stages of program development (with particular attention to accreditation needs).

Chapter Three identifies concerns relevant at the department and program levels. Notably, Walvoord uses examples from departments other than English, where writing programs tend to be housed. In this way, she makes clear how the integration and assessment of writing is relevant and important across disciplines. This chapter emphasizes individual departments are as much stake-holders in the program as anyone else and demonstrates how articulating the specifics of disciplinary conventions will “help your students become proficient at writing in your discipline” (p. 51).

Finally, Chapter Four addresses the needs and interests of individual instructors, providing guidance “for faculty who want to assign more student writing or to work more effectively with student writing, in classes, in any discipline,” or at any degree level (p. 59). Like the previous chapters, Walvoord guides instructors to start first with observation: “observe your own classroom in reasonably systemic ways…to gather useful information that can help your teaching be more effective and more time-efficient” (p. 61). She directs instructors to consider the student writing itself, as well as to talk with students about their experiences with the course and assignments. This analysis calls for scrutiny of how both students and instructors engage with writing. Drawing on best practices and scholarly research, Walvoord directs instructors to ways they can improve their existing writing assignments, as well as incorporate writing into their course effectively and purposefully without increasing workload.

Overall, the text foregrounds programmatic structure over the actual assessment of writing, and relies heavily on its extensive bibliographies to direct readers to actual writing assessment practices and rubrics. Though Chapter Four, which is targeted toward classroom instructors, does address writing inclusion and approaches to assessment more tangibly, its placement at the end of the text has the consequence of making it an afterthought rather than a focus. Similarly, the pick-and-choose nature of the chapters can leave readers feeling disjointed and the guidance offered brief. Despite these challenges, Walvoord’s text remains a valuable resource for the implementation of WAC/WID programs once stakeholder buy-in has been achieved.