Review of Zachary Stein’s Social Justice and Educational Measurement: John Rawls, the History of Testing, and the Future of Education

By Sara Lovett, The University of Washington

Stein, Z. (2016). Social justice and educational measurement: John Rawls, the history of testing, and the future of education. 

In Social Justice and Educational Measurement: John Rawls, the History of Testing, and the Future of Education (2016), Zachary Stein critiques the American standardized testing enterprise and proposes reforms inspired by John Rawls’s philosophies of social justice. Though Stein does not speak specifically to writing assessment, writing program administrators (WPAs) and instructors will find Stein’s call for socially just assessment practices applicable to composition.

Throughout this volume, Stein applies John Rawls’s philosophy of social justice to the context of educational measurement in 21st century America. The arguments in this book stem from the premise that equity in education must be designed intentionally to create a fair environment for all students. A reader looking for a brief overview of John Rawls’s philosophies on social justice and the history of educational measurement would be served well by the introduction alone, but readers seeking recommendations for assessment reform will find value in subsequent chapters.

After introducing his modern approach toward Rawls’s philosophy, Stein reviews the interconnected history of measurement and social justice, providing context for the failure of current testing methods. WPAs seeking to reform current placement and testing practices will find detailed explanations of how educational measurement has been standardized in ways that discriminate against particular student populations. Stein’s writing in this first chapter and throughout the book is accessible to readers with minimal prior knowledge on educational philosophy yet useful to those who are more well-versed on the topic.

While most of this book is about approaches to measurement, Stein suggests in Chapter 2 that there are also curricular implications for Rawls’s theories. Extending Rawls’s ideas on civic education, Stein argues that schools play a role, either implicitly or explicitly, in forming what students’ value. This chapter makes a case for the importance of humanities education in a time when schools are increasingly focused on tests and outcomes. Writing instructors and WPAs may find this section useful in advocating for public-facing writing and the modern value of the humanities.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the history of assessment might consider jumping to Chapters 4 and 5, which elaborate on the origins of educational measurement as a form of (what was perceived to be) scientific, objective physical measurement, before returning to Stein’s argument in Chapter 3. Stein covers the origins of IQ tests through to their modern iterations, arguing that these tests fail to measure intelligence holistically and that college entrance tests like the SAT do not measure anything other than how to take the test. These chapters provide insightful context for WPAs who use standardized tests as placement measures for composition courses.

Readers might conclude by Chapter 3 that Stein is anti-testing, but they would be mistaken. Stein argues for reform rather than elimination of testing, stating that current practices reduce students to metrics and sacrifice fairness for the sake of efficiency. He advocates for a less standardized, more student-centered approach to socially just assessment, built on Rawls’s philosophies. Stein’s approach is aligned with directed self-placement and multiple-measures placement approaches, which are becoming more common in composition. As WPAs advocate for more socially just placement practices, they might draw on Stein’s rationale to support individualized assessment practices.

Applying Rawls to a modern context, Stein meditates on the role of technology in facilitating social justice in education in his closing chapter. He argues that new media offer the potential to work as catalysts for a more socially just education system but that without deliberate design, they may instead increase inequality due to unequal access to technology. Instructors and WPAs seeking to apply multimodal and new media approaches as well as ethical testing practices will find a compelling argument for carefully melding the two approaches in this chapter.

In 220 pages, Stein makes a provocative contribution to conversations on equity in education and socially just alternatives to standardized testing. While the book is not explicitly marketed to compositionists, WPAs and writing instructors invested in social justice in education will find this fresh application of Rawls’s philosophy relevant to the needs of 21st century students.

Review of Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn

By Anicca Cox, Michigan State University and Virginia M. Schwarz, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Moss, P. A., Pullin, D. C., Gee, J. P., Haertel, E. H., & Young, L. J. (Eds.). (2008). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn. Cambridge University Press.

Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn (Moss, Pullin, Gee, Haertel, & Young, 2008) is a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort to reframe learning during an era of high-stakes testing and accountability that persists today. Authors describe opportunity to learn (OTL) as access to the resources and environments that make learning possible. This means testing of any sort should be used for improvement, rather than ranking. Supported by the Spencer Foundation, this collection sought to broaden “traditional” psychometric conceptions of assessment that fail to account for the sociocultural and local factors of learning environments. Specifically, Moss and colleagues attempted to shift national conversations about assessment from individual student performance to issues of access and equity. To do so, contributors present historical and contemporary assessment approaches that explore context-specific questions, considerations, and affordances and constraints. Consequently, this collection works as an introductory resource for policy makers, educators, parents, and other stakeholders in understanding the complex processes of teaching and learning in K-12 contexts.

The book is organized into twelve chapters conceptually arranged first via histories of OTL schemas, both sociological and sociocultural; next, by examining particular themes—disabilities, cultural practices, community-centered, and gaming—and finally, retrieving earlier assessment models and considering instances of practical application in large and local scale assessments. Its final chapter articulates a set of principles for understanding OTL and reiterates the need for assessment to illuminate the “relationships, interactions, and contexts” of schooling environments to enhance those opportunities (pp. 11, 335).

Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn prefigures much of the work those of us who started teaching writing in the last 10 years are exposed to, consider, and incorporate into our classrooms. In what we might call the “assessment” turn in writing studies, our pedagogy and training has necessarily had to consider effective and, we hope, equitable ways to assess writing at the classroom, programmatic, and institutional level. We are accustomed to critical issues of inequity in assessment measures like standardized testing that disproportionately disadvantage learners with less access to dominant discourse structures. This last consideration finds voice in an overwhelming amount of literature from early works on developmental writers, to critical pedagogy, and through more recent, assessment-specific work like Race and Writing Assessment (Inoue & Poe, 2012) and the Journal of Writing Assessment’s special issue on “A Theory of Ethics for Writing Assessment” (Kelly-Riley, D., & Whithaus, 2016).

However, 10 years on, the “culture of evidence” (vii) climate this volume was responding to has, in many ways, failed to listen to the information on the ground from educators about teaching and learning. National and institutional performance-driven assessment mechanisms have continued to march forward with initiatives like the Common Core, and its paradigm has increasingly progressed into higher education. So, we find ourselves as teachers and writing studies professionals obligated now, more than ever, to guard students from top-down measures that do not adequately reflect their abilities and provide them with equitable opportunities to learn.

As an edited collection, Assessment, Equity, and Opportunity to Learn continues to provide writing studies with foundational ways to understand learning itself, specifically from sociocultural and psychometric frames that advocate for locally responsive, formative, and pragmatic assessments, over summative, performance-driven metrics. Moss et al. offer examples of classroom and programmatic strategies to assess learning effectively for students and teachers, not just for institutions and administrators. Community college faculty, in particular, and those working in academic success and pathways programs, might find this book valuable for understanding the uneven distribution of educational opportunities and the need for institutions to be flexible and responsive to the diverse body of students they serve. In other words, OTL can be leveraged to push back against deficit thinking (Delpit, 2012) and needs-based discourse (Crowley, 1998). From this perspective, poor classroom or test performance indicates a failure not on the part of individual students but because of ineffective educational design and assessment practices. Consequently, as the various authors illustrate via articles mapping their own institutional projects, assessment should inform institutional revision and change. Finally, for writing studies scholars and professionals who also wish to engage in institutional research, this collection provides an accessible way into frameworks such as sociology and anthropology that have become vital to cross-disciplinary collaborations and continue to influence many domains of educational research today.

References

Crowley, S. (1998). Composition in the university: Historical and polemical essays. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Delpit, L. D. (2012). “Multiplication is for white people”: Raising expectations for other people’s children. The New Press.

Inoue, A. B., & Poe, M. (Eds.). (2012). Race and writing assessment. Studies in composition and rhetoric (Vol. 7). Peter Lang.

Kelly-Riley, D., & Whithaus, C. (Eds.). (2016). A theory of ethics for writing assessment [Special issue]. Journal of Writing Assessment, 9(1). Retrieved from http://journalofwritingassessment.org/archives.php?issue=19

Moss, P. A., Pullin, D. C., Gee, J. P., Haertel, E. H., & Young, L. J. (Eds.). (2008). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn. Cambridge University Press.

Review of Retention, Persistence, and Writing Programs

By Alexis Piper, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Ruecker, T., Shepherd, D., Estrem, H., & Brunk-Chavez, B. (Eds.). (2017). Retention, persistence, and writing programs. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Amidst the buzz of “growth mindset,” “grit,” “social resilience” and the like, it seems a kairotic moment for a conversation about how writing programs can contribute to student persistence and university retention efforts. Thus, the stage is set for Todd Ruecker, Dawn Shepherd, Heidi Estrem, and Beth Brunk-Chavez’s Retention, Persistence, and Writing Programs, which brings the ubiquitous conversations about student success to writing programs and writing teachers.

Part one of the book overviews how writing programs can participate in larger discussions of retention. The contributors explore a variety of themes, including: how WPAs can use their knowledge and experience to shape broader discussions of persistence and retention (Malenczyk); how collaboration between different university spheres can aid student retention and persistence efforts (Holmes and Busser); the possibilities and pitfalls of using big data to develop and assess retention efforts (Scott); the need for compensated professional development opportunities for faculty invested in retention and persistence (Giordano, Hassel, Heinert, and Phillips); the crucial role that first-year writing courses play in long-term academic success (Garrett, Bridgewater, and Feinstein); and how complex socio-economic, familial, and cultural factors negatively affect students’ persistence and retention (Webb-Sunderhaus).

Part two, which outlines high-impact practices writing teachers can implement to cultivate student retention and persistence, opens with a chapter by Pegeen Reichert Powell, whose early work on retention serves as a through-line for the entire book. Powell offers “kairotic classrooms” and Derrida’s conception of “absolute hospitality” as ways to redesign writing programs for student success. Part two goes on to explores how different universities encourage retention and persistence, including: CLASP (Critical Literacies Achievement and Success Program) at the Washington State University (Buyserie, Plemons, and Ericsson), the PlusOne program at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (Chemishanova and Snead), and the Stretch Program at the Arizona State University’s (Snyder). In addition, supplemental instruction at a two-year campus (Harris), learning communities at a predominantly Hispanic-serving institution (Wolff Murphy and Hartlaub), and an undergraduate mentorship program at Northern Illinois University (Day, Gipson, and Parker) are all offered as ways to increase student persistence, engagement, learning, and retention. From an assessment point of view, it is worthwhile to consider how students are placed in courses and the aforementioned programs in the first place, and the bearing this placement has on student success.

Marc Scott’s contribution, “Big Data and Writing Program Retention Assessment,” is the most explicit connection to assessment in the collection and draws from recent trends emphasizing context, inquiry, and assessment’s intersections with race and socio-economic status. The chapter argues “that the most useful way for WPAs to consider Big Data in the context of graduation and retention rates is through the lens of current assessment scholarship” (p. 57). Besides Scott’s work, those interested in assessment can use the book as a source of invention for their own work, including, for example, research into the overlaps and disconnects between writing disposition, persistence, resistance, and success. Additionally, investigating how current assessment theory could help writing teachers and WPAs more concretely gauge students’ obstacles, persistence, and potential for retention are other possibilities for future work.

For me, the most memorable moment in the book comes when Reichert Powell suggests that “some students should leave… and it is not [our] business to prevent them from leaving” (p. 135). This emphasizes cultivating life-long persistence rather than retaining students for monetary reasons while also pointing out there are some things we can do to help students persist and “succeed”—and there are many factors beyond our control. Keeping limitations and possibilities in mind is one way we can both persist and resist in our professions—particularly when the stakes are so high, when the obstacles are often increasingly daunting for all, and when we are increasingly asked to do so much, as Retention, Persistence, and Writing Programs rightly points out.

Review of Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity

By Sarah Klotz, University of Southern California

Poe, M., Inoue, A. B., & Elliot, N. (2018). Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity. Perspectives on Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/assessment/

In this collection, Poe, Inoue, and Elliot bring together scholars from a wide spectrum of approaches for a comprehensive look into writing assessment for social justice aims. The book is divided into four sections: historiography, admission and placement, outcomes design, and teacher research. The editors provide structural support to make their ambitious project accessible to readers through an introduction to each chapter that summarizes the research problem, research question, literature review, methodology, conclusions, qualifications, and directions for further study. Poe, Inoue, and Elliot also include 18 assertions on writing assessment with commentary and an action canvas, which centers praxis as a primary concern of the volume. The strength of the book is its methodological scope. The editors make clear that the social justice imperative for writing assessment will take innovative, collaborative, and mixed-methods approaches to bring about the advancement of opportunity for students historically underserved in college writing contexts.

This resource is appropriate for both newcomers and advanced scholars in writing assessment, as the text encourages engagement through a single chapter or a cover-to-cover reading for those looking for a critique of writing assessment as a tool of injustice as well as ideas for action. In the introduction, the editors call for two key turns: the shift from elementalist reasoning to an ecological framework (p. 5) and the reorientation of validity studies toward justice (p. 16). While elementalist reasoning is never fully defined, I take the authors to mean assessment approaches that view translingual practices within deficit frameworks while emphasizing college writing as a set of discrete skills (i.e. correctness and knowledge of conventions) that will serve students in academic and professional settings (p. 19). In essence, elementalist stands in opposition to ecological. In the chapters that follow, these re-orientations become clear and actionable. The chapter authors demonstrate their unwillingness to balk in the face of entrenched systems of power even as they catalog the enormity of the structural changes required to reorient writing assessment towards social justice.

The volume emphasizes historiography and grounds the concerns of contemporary writing programs within a long history of oppressive writing assessment. The first section addresses assessment in the colonial context of the Philippines (Harms) as well as how notions of monolingual purity in the United States pathologize immigrant writers (Hammond). By opening with historiography, the editors provide an implicit schema for their emergent theory of socially just assessment. It becomes clear that, when our field relies on empirical notions of validity, we fail to account for how eugenics, anti-Black racism, and colonization inform and structure empirical methods. Later sections, particularly those that work with the more quantitative orientations of assessment studies, do not always return to these histories of Euro-American colonization and anti-Black racism. If there is one shortcoming that I would note in the volume, it is that the sections on admission and placement and outcomes design do not always achieve the ambitious goal of overlaying critical theory, historiography, and validity.

Another intervention that the volume undertakes is to provide specific examples of how critical methods inform writing assessment. The essay that most exemplifies the approaches that the editors demand is “The Violence of Assessment: Writing Assessment, Social (In)Justice, and the Role of Validation” (Chapter 7). Lederman and Warwick argue that validity studies have been increasingly concerned with the social consequences of assessment, but the empirical methodology underpinning validity and validation will not challenge existing paradigms without deep engagement with “feminist, queer, postcolonial, anti-racist traditions which actively seek to problematize historical power-relations” (p. 246). Other essays that are attuned to bridging critical identity studies with assessment methodologies are Chapter 8, on pervasive anti-Black racism in predominantly White institutions; Chapter 10, on the challenges of justice-oriented writing assessment at a tribal college with a predominantly Euro-American faculty; and Chapter 11, on attending to the emotional and physical safety of LGBTQ writers in writing centers and other assessment contexts.

While the task ahead for scholars and teachers of writing is monumental, this volume delineates theoretical and structural approaches with great promise to bring about the democratic aims of our writing programs through a reorientation to social justice in all of our assessment ecologies.