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.

A Review of Emily J. Isaacs’ Writing at the State U: Instruction and Administration at 106 Comprehensive Universities, Part 1

By Zack K. De Piero, Penn State Abington   

Isaacs, E. J. (2018). Writing at the State U: Instruction and administration at 106 comprehensive universities. Louisville, CO: Utah State University Press.

This review of Writing at the State U is divided into two parts. Part 1 outlines the scope of Isaacs’ inquiry and details her major findings. Part 2 discusses how Writing at the State U might be used by various audiences—namely, writing program administrators and assessment practitioners—and how this text poses important considerations for the composition field.

In Writing at the State U, Emily Isaacs—a WPA turned associate dean—captures a broad snapshot of writing programs at state comprehensive universities (SCUs) by examining a wide range of variables (153 total) associated with writing program administration. Through publicly-accessible data (e.g., course descriptions for curricular focus and learning outcomes) coupled with follow-up surveys (92% response rate), Isaacs’ quantitative-oriented findings drive her comparative analysis. The resulting portrait offers considerable variation in how writing is taught, assessed, and administered at SCUs across the country, albeit with some strong correlations and emergent trends.

From a population of 383 four-year public regional universities—thereby excluding two-year, private, and non-US institutions—Isaacs examined a random sample of 106 schools, stratified by accrediting region and size, using supplementary data from the Carnegie Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics. To characterize each program, she cast a wide net, accounting for aspects like whether tenure-line faculty teach FYC to the fiscal/administrative location of the writing center (e.g., English departments, student-support centers). The following sentence should give readers a clear sense of Isaacs’ approach; in it, she reveals patterns connected to whether a particular writing program offers a writing major: “The other two FYC-related variables that associate with the presence of a writing major are the use of DSP for placement and the inclusion of instruction in primary-research methodologies when teaching research writing” (p. 154).

On face value, some variables in this study might seem isolated, but upon further inspection, their interplay often points to one of the larger goals of Isaac’s study: to determine SCU writing programs’ “writing robustness”—what might be considered a program’s explicit commitment to the best practices and principles of the discipline. To this end, one of her most intriguing variables is how she measures a particular writing program’s collective disciplinary expertise in the comp/rhet field; in search of a “proxy for knowledgeability” (p. 174), she identifies individuals who presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (Cs) between the years of 2010-2011 and traces their affiliate institutions.

Among some of her more noteworthy findings about SCU writing programs in her sample:

  • as universities get larger, they are more likely to situate FYC outside English or humanities departments, along with having faculty who are more likely to be trained in writing
  • 97% of large and very large institutions had WPAs; 60% of medium and small institutions had WPAs
  • 9% employed part-time faculty; 38.8% employed graduate students
  • 58% had faculty with speaking roles at Cs from 2010-2011
  • 8% “offer[ed] some kind of vertical program in writing—a minor or concentration most typically” (p. 125); 10.4% of these schools offered a writing major
  • 4% required 1 FYC course, 68.6% required 2, and one school didn’t require FYC (New College of Florida)
  • 8% had FYC outcomes that acknowledged “primary and secondary” research methodologies
  • 6% had FYC courses that incorporated the study of literature
  • 25% have the “recommended” average number of students in FYC classrooms (20 or less); over 50% enroll 24+ students (p. 72)
  • 2% had basic writing programs; 82.3% of these schools use a standardized test (e.g., ACT, Accuplacer) for placement.
  • 100% had writing centers or individualized tutoring

Reflecting on the overall state of SCU writing programs, Isaacs strikes a tempered middle-ground stance between historical “dark view[s]” that portray a “chaotic and insufficiently unified” field, and conversely, optimistic views that are driven, in part, by “hopeful announcements of recently arrived-at unity” (p. 31). She reminds her composition colleagues, “I suspect that it always feels like we’re in the worst of times [but] that can’t always be the case” (p. 42). In summarizing the composition field’s impact on SCU writing programs, Issacs’ forecast is, at best, partially cloudy. Though numerous SCUs have clearly taken strides towards embracing the “best practices” (p. 134) of the field, she has also detected “a small but significant number of schools” who are “seemingly caught in a time warp, serving up an arhetorical understanding of writing […] these schools also have public documents that suggest a fixed notion of writing that is rooted in the binary of correct versus incorrect” (p. 160). To address this divide, Isaacs addresses a range of questions and concerns that can be found in Part 2.

A Review of Emily J. Isaacs’ Writing at the State U: Instruction and Administration at 106 Comprehensive Universities, Part 2

By Zack K. De Piero, Penn State Abington   

Isaacs, E.J. (2018). Writing at the State U: Instruction and administration at 106 comprehensive universities. Louisville, CO: Utah State University Press.

In terms of style and methodological procedures, throughout Writing at State U, Isaacs assumes a largely “reportorial approach” (p. 29) toward her empirical investigation. Her work is informed by similar studies that are each outlined in Chapter 2, “Assessment of Writing Studies Practices”, which should appeal to readers of the Journal of Writing Assessment for its fairly expansive view of historical “state-of-the-field” scholarship concerning writing programs. Here, Isaacs summarizes the methodologies and findings from a century’s worth of studies—including Taylor (1927), Shuck (1955), Kitzhaber (early ’60’s), Wilcox (late ’60’s-early ’70’s), Larson (1994), Fulkerson (2005), and Haswell (2010). This overview lays a valuable foundation for Isaacs’ ensuing analysis of SCUs and offers an implicit rationale for her approach. Although she doesn’t foreground her own work in such terms, Isaacs appears to favor “RAD” approaches (replicable, aggregable, data-supported) to studying the seemingly endless number of dynamics in writing programs.

The intended audience of Writing at the State U are WPAs, who should find Isaacs’ digestable cross-institution data useful for providing programmatic snapshots to facilitate communication with on-campus administrative personnel (e.g., dean, provost), particularly for conversations about organizational structures. Graduate students with an interest in writing program administration, and perhaps program assessment practitioners, will also benefit by considering the array of dynamics inherent in such complex work. Although why? questions remain outside the scope of Isaacs’ self-described “bird’s-eye view” study, she often concludes sub-sections of analysis by offering follow-up qualitative inquiries worthy of pursuit or adaptation, some of which will likely pique readers’ interests:

  • Teacher education: “Are instructors who teach FYC specifically trained for teaching writing?” (p. 64)
  • Basic writing: “How is the presence of basic writing determined, and why do schools in the same state manage to vary not only on the presence of basic writing but also in whether or not they offer institutional credit or favor national objective placement instruments over in-house methods?” (pp. 81-82)
  • Writing majors/minors: “Why, then, are there so few writing majors? […] what is a writing major? […] what exactly is it at heart? What will students learn? What is its disciplinary core and what are its required components?” (pp. 155-157)
  • Writing Program Certificate of Excellence: “At present, the program provides guidelines but few requirements. Would it make sense to include a few carefully selected specific requirements?” (p. 166)

Other stand-out sections in the monograph include: “1960’s: Researchers Vary in Methodology but Unite in Leveling Sharp Criticism” (Chapter 2), “Course Standardization Through Syllabi” (Chapter 3), “Basic Writing: Placement Practices” (Chapter 3), “Programs in Writing: Concentrations, Minors, and Majors” (Chapter 5).

A subtle layer of WPA activism underscores this text; Isaacs occasionally offers suggestions that (welcomingly) broach her reportorial approach, like when she encourages writing faculty and WPAs to “interrogate what tests are used for placement and exemption” (p. 163) and “argue for the curricula we believe in” (pp. 181-182). Such insights lend an informed disciplinary perspective to this text by reinforcing what’s perhaps the composition field’s most cherished principle: writing education is best conceptualized on the local level by comp/rhet professionals. In practice, though, Isaacs acknowledges the greater interdependent structures that shape WPA work are forceful:

Increasingly, state universities and colleges are not independent actors; rather, they are locked into articulation agreements and subject to state-wide higher education councils, often highly political entities, that have an impact on such decisions as general education requirements and assessment criteria for placement and exemption. (p. 44)

One last issue merits consideration. While it isn’t taken up by Isaacs, Writing at the State U raises larger, important questions about writing programs and open-access information: What (additional) programmatic information should be shared with the public? Sample syllabi? Typical assignments? Frequently-assigned readings from the departmental canon? In the interest of furthering the field’s collective knowledge, future researchers would clearly benefit from having access to such information. These data points would lend a penetrative depth to similar “state-of-the-field” inquiries, thereby offering researchers the chance to fill out their portraits with nuanced texture.

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.

Would you like to write a review for the JWA Reading List?

We’re looking for scholars who would like to write shorter reviews of important pieces about writing assessment.  Here are the submission guidelines for the JWA Reading List:

The Journal of Writing Assessment welcomes submissions for the Reading List. Submissions should be 500-750 words in length. The purpose of the Reading List is to highlight the importance of publications for practitioners in writing assessment. Reviews should include an overview of the main points of the publication, an overview of the methodologies, identification of controversies and then a brief discussion of the relevance of this publication for the field of writing assessment.

Authors should follow the style guidelines of the most recent edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, especially for reference lists and text citation of sources.

Currently, submissions to JWA’s Reading List are reviewed by the editors.

JWA Reading List submissions can be sent via our webpage at http://journalofwritingassessment.org/submit.php or as an email attachment to journalofwritingassessment@gmail.com.

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