Review of Ellen C. Carillo’s The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading

Reviewed by Mikenna Sims, University of California, Davis

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

Ellen C. Carillo’s (2021) The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading offers a critique of the assessment model put forth by Asao B. Inoue (2019) in Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Carillo opens her introduction by naming Inoue an “invaluable leader in writing studies,” particularly as the field contends with inequitable grading practices (4). Building on the work of Inoue and others, Carillo offers a disabilities studies lens through which she explores the implications of labor-based contract grading among disabled and neurodivergent students, departing from the raciolinguistic lens that has informed much of the existing work on contract grading. Carillo concludes her introduction with a brief history of contract grading situated in Cowan’s (2020) recent review of the literature.

Carillo opens Chapter 1 by outlining a set of assumptions that underscores labor-based contract grading. Specifically, Carillo posits that labor-based contract grading inaccurately assumes that labor is a neutral measure, and that contracts that attempt to quantify student labor reinforce White, middle-class, normative, ableist, and neurotypical conceptions of labor. That is, time to labor is less available to students in certain socioeconomic classes, and the concepts of time and labor function differently for students with disabilities and who are neurodivergent. Carillo additionally calls attention to the coupling of students’ willingness to labor with their ability to labor, which is a central component of Inoue’s (2019) labor-based contract grading model. Carillo further critiques the model’s assumption in Chapter 2 and considers that while students may be willing to engage in the laboring processes of a writing course, their time and ability to do so may vary considerably. She closes the chapter by arguing that labor-based contract grading merely substitutes one standard of assessment for another, and that the normative, laboring body remains at the center of labor-based grading contracts.

In Chapter 3, Carillo highlights students’ significant and growing experiences with anxiety and depression, exacerbated in part by the COVID-19 pandemic. Carillo contends that labor-based contract grading creates a standard of labor that excludes students experiencing heightened states of anxiety and depression and goes on to problematize the contract negotiation process Inoue (2019) proposes as a way for instructors to invite students to define important terms and labor expectations of a course contract. These negotiation processes, Carillo argues, place the responsibility of disclosing and requesting accommodations on disabled and neurodivergent students, and are reactive instead of proactive.

Students’ intersectional identities are central in Chapter 4, throughout which Carillo considers the ways in which multiply-marginalized students are disadvantaged in labor-based assessment ecologies. Further, she argues that labor-based grading contracts can easily revert to instruments that measure the quality of student writing, and that asking students to put more labor into their coursework is codified language that implies students are producing work that is of subpar quality. Carillo praises Kryger & Zimmerman (2020) for their intentionally intersectional approach to labor-based contract grading. She particularly values their attention to denaturalizing White supremacy, nonnormative conceptions of time and effort, as well as their emphasis on flexibility in assessment. Carillo concludes this chapter by highlighting the importance of conversations such as those put forth by Kryger & Zimmerman to “recognize and include the widest possible range of modes of learning and being” (42).

Throughout Chapter 5, Carillo considers the effectiveness of grading contracts across local assessment ecologies. After providing a brief overview of several recent studies on contract grading, she turns her attention to Inoue’s (2012) “Grading contracts: Assessing their effectiveness on different racial formations,” and Inoue’s (2019) Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Carillo, upon reexamining the data Inoue provides in these two texts, reasons that the students of color in Inoue’s classes seem to be doing more labor than their White counterparts but are not rewarded for it, suggesting that the philosophy that informs labor-based contract grading may be overestimating the equalizing power of labor and underestimating the importance of intersectionality. Carillo, echoing Cowan (2020), concludes Chapter 5 by issuing a call for large-scale studies that examine the effectiveness of labor-based grading contracts.

Carillo concludes Hidden Inequities by rearticulating that labor-based grading contracts are designed to best serve idealized, able-bodied, and neurotypical students. Carillo proposes engagement-based grading contracts as an alternative method of assessment in which students are offered a broad range of ways to demonstrate engagement in the course. She reasons that engagement-based grading contracts afford students the flexibility and agency of deciding which methods of engagement are most suitable to them at a given time, which works to bridge the gap between student willingness and ability. Carillo additionally suggests that using a translingual lens to assess student writing, and creating individualized student contracts, may better attend to multiply-marginalized and linguistically diverse students. She ends by reminding writing studies scholars that constructing equitable, student-centered assessment methods is a process, and not solely an outcome to be achieved.


Cowan, M. (2020). A legacy of grading contracts for composition. Journal of Writing Assessment, 13(2). Retrieved from

Inoue, A. B. (2012). Grading contracts: Assessing their effectiveness on different racial formations. In A.B. Inoue & M. Poe (Eds.), Race and writing assessment (pp. 79-94). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

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

Kryger, K., & Zimmerman, G.X. (2020). Neurodivergence and intersectionality in labor-based grading contracts. Journal of Writing Assessment, 13(2). Retrieved from

Review of Communal Justicing: Writing Assessment, Disciplinary Infrastructure, and the Case for Critical Language Awareness

Reviewed by Cassandra Goff, University of Utah

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.

In “Communal Justicing: Writing Assessment, Disciplinary Infrastructure, and the Case for Critical Language Awareness” (2021), Gere, Curzan, Hammond, Hughes, Li, Moos, Sith, Zanen, Wheeler, and Zanders show that the work towards critical language awareness and social justice needs continual improvements from the local to the institutional level. Arguing for a more stringent effort towards improvements for justice on an institutional level, the authors remind the Writing Studies field of their community responsibility for critical language awareness and justicing.

Drawing upon Swain’s definition of ‘languaging’, Gere et al. discuss how “justicing implies a process of conscious, iterative, effort that is not achieved all at once, but rather depends upon the choices we continually make” (p. 385). Communal justicing is the ongoing and collective project of working towards justice. In other words, justicing is the action verb while justice is the noun. The authors constantly re-emphasize that the work for critical language awareness and communal justicing is the responsibility of the whole community. Changes to institutional infrastructure cannot occur without everyone working with the same common goal in mind.

Gere et al. identify that students have a key role within the Writing Studies community as well. “By promoting critical language awareness as a matter of policy, we help to ensure that the writing classroom is a space for teachers and students to participate in communal justicing,” (p. 394). Gere et al. imagine all students form a rhetorical understanding of ‘proper’ and ‘incorrect’ written conventions and language varieties to help them inform and change social hierarchies and implications. 

The authors argue that revising key elements of institutional infrastructures is necessary for promoting critical language awareness and communal justicing within the field overall as well as everyday choices and improvement within composition classrooms. “We take the term ‘communal justicing’ to designate something more than local efforts to revise aspects of assessment that contribute to unjust outcomes for students” (p. 387). Individual local change is not sufficient.

Drawing upon previous scholarship by Duffy, Gilyard, Inoue, Wardle, and others, Gere et al. argue for the field’s common vision to be shaped by communal justicing.  Starting by making improvements towards communal justicing within the field’s past policies and publications, scholars and practitioners within the field of Writing Studies must focus on disciplinary memory of language history, policy, and discrimination “Reimagining our guiding documents so that they advance critical language awareness is one such infrastructural intervention – one such means of justicing,” (p. 386). The authors propose significant revision to the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing; a guiding document informs curriculum development for Writing Studies instructors in both college and high-school contexts. The focus of Gere et al. revisions to the Framework document prioritizes language, noting the absence of the word itself from the original publication.

Transparency is a necessity in communal justicing work when creating and revising guiding documents within the field. The Framework was produced in 2011 by a collation of authors from the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), and the National Writing Project (NWP). Gere et al. note the Framework “hides the identity of those who consider and determine what is correct, or appropriate” (p. 396) for the formal rules and information guidelines of writing conventions.

Gere et al. subtly nod towards the need for everyone within the Writing Studies field, not only a few assigned individuals, to prioritize critical language awareness and communal justicing. They mention many of the conversations within NCTE and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) that focus on social justice and critical language awareness “have been initiated and led by antiracist educators of color, as well as interest and advocacy groups…” (p, 389). The necessary choices and continuous work of communal justicing is not the responsibility of people of color alone; it’s the responsibility of the entire Writing Studies community.  

The authors remind those within the Writing Studies field that communal justicing work is not in the past; it is work that must be continuously prioritized now and improved upon in the future. Drawing upon Smitherman, Gere et al. “the purpose of communal justicing is… to make these improvement efforts so habitual within the field that it becomes difficult to imagine disciplinary participation without them,” (p. 402). Their call to those within the Writing Studies field to continually choose to make efforts towards critical language awareness and communal justicing is strengthened when the authors reaffirm knowledge that inaction does not change or challenge the systematic powers and privileges at play.

In referencing NCTE and CCCC primarily within “Communal Justicing: Writing Assessment, Disciplinary Infrastructure, and the Case for Critical Language Awareness”, Gere et al. miss the opportunity to evaluate the Two-Year College English Association’s (TYCA) role towards critical language awareness and communal justicing work within the Writing Studies field. This text leaves room to consider how community colleges are already and continuously working towards communal justicing with, sometimes extremely, varying student populations.

Throughout the various contexts of the Writing Studies field, Gere et al. mention how even though multimodality is becoming increasingly popular within composition classrooms, language-based texts are the standard for assessment ideologies. This juxtaposition calls for the Writing Studies field to evaluate the role of multimodality within the work of communal justicing, especially in relation to assessment.


Committee on Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Language Statement (1974). Students’ right to their own language. Conference on College Composition and Communication, 25(3), 1-32.

Council of Writing Program Administrators (2014). WPA outcomes statement for first-year composition. Version 3.0.

Council of Writing Program Administrators (2011). Framework for success in postsecondary writing. National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project.

Duffy, J. (2019). Provocations of virtue: rhetoric, ethics, and the teaching of writing. Utah State University.

Gilyard, K. (2000) “Literacy, identity, imagination, flight.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, 52(2), 267-272.

Inoue, A. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. WAC Clearinghouse.

National Council of Teachers of English and International Reading Association (2019). Standards for the assessment of reading and writing.

Wardle, E., Adler-Kassner, L., Alexander, J., Elliot, N., Hammond, J.W., Poe, M., Rhodes, J., Womack, A.M. (2019). Recognizing the limits of threshold concept theory. In L. Adler-Kassner and E. Wardle (Eds.), (Re)Considering What We Know: Learning Thresholds in Writing, Composition, Rhetoric, and Literacy (pp. 15-35). Utah State University Press.

Review of Deborah Cursan’s “Writing Assessment Literacy”

Reviewed by Madeline Crozier, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Crusan, D. (2021). Writing assessment literacy. In H. Mohebbi & C. Coombe (Eds.), Research questions in language education and applied linguistics: A reference guide (pp. 431-435). Springer Texts in Education.

In any composition classroom, writing assessment facilitates student learning, literacy acquisition, and writing development. Effective writing assessment is necessary for meaningful teaching and learning. However, teacher preparation programs and writing pedagogy education curricula may lack a focus on assessment, leaving instructors without enough experience, preparation, or training to assess student writing in the classroom. This is the practical and theoretical problem that drives Deborah Crusan’s emphasis on writing assessment literacy (WAL) in her contribution to the comprehensive collection Research Questions in Language Education and Applied Linguistics: A Reference Guide, an academic tome edited by Hassan Mohebbi and Christine Coombe (2021). In her five-page reference entry—one among 152 research topics in the reference guide—Crusan concisely introduces the WAL framework, identifies relevant research questions, and suggests additional resources. This brief, accessible resource, along with many useful additions to the collection, offers a starting point for assessment researchers, scholars, and practitioners to begin lines of inquiry into WAL development. Taken altogether, the collection provides a rare resource for scholars seeking exigencies for meaningful writing research, and Crusan’s addition highlights the crucial, yet often overlooked, impact of WAL on writing assessment.

As Crusan (2021) explains, WAL refers to a construct that helps explain how writing instructors’ assessment knowledge and beliefs inform their assessment practices. Some of the skills and knowledge encompassed by WAL include “the ability of teachers to create effective assignments and their accompanying scoring tools, to understand the reasons for assessing their students’ writing, . . . and to carry on their assessment duties ethically and conscientiously” (p. 431). Crusan (2021) underscores that WAL guides instructors to make informed decisions about their assessment practices. Because assessment impacts student learning in significant ways, instructors need to be adequately trained to deliver effective and ethical writing assessment. Crusan (2021) notably highlights the “good assessment practices” of “fairness, accountability, and transparency” (p. 431) as necessary for classroom writing assessment and further suggests that instructors need to know how to create “effective, ethical rubrics” (p. 432). Although several decades of writing assessment scholarship has developed theories and best practices for effective writing assessment, this research does not always appear in teacher training programs or shape writing assessment practice. The ongoing divide between research, theory, and practice accounts for this misalignment and motivates more research to explore how instructors develop WAL to enhance writing assessment for teachers and, subsequently, their students. Crusan (2021) aptly navigates these dichotomies to demonstrate how researchers can bridge the gap between assessment theory and practice through the study of WAL development.

After defining WAL and situating the construct as a response to this research gap, Crusan (2021) provides ten research questions to guide studies of WAL development (p. 432). These questions are extremely useful for researchers and scholars who want to contribute to the field’s knowledge about writing assessment and teacher training. For instance, one of the research questions is, “What is the impact of teaching experience on writing assessment knowledge, beliefs, and practices?” (Crusan, 2021, p. 433). This question directs researchers to understand how different amounts and types of teaching experience shape instructors’ beliefs and knowledge about writing assessment. The question could generate a greater understanding about what types of experiences and training can best support instructors as they develop WAL. Another particularly useful research question is, “How can teaching be enhanced through writing assessment literacy?” (Crusan, 2021, p. 433). A research question like this understands that WAL does not only impact the instructors who deliver assessment but the students who receive assessment. This question points to the potential of understanding how instructors’ WAL shapes their assessment practices which subsequently impact their students. Crusan (2021), a leading researcher on second language writing assessment, writing teacher education, and WAL, conclusively argues the need for more research on this topic. She centers many of the questions around the experiences of second language writing teachers, but the research questions are adaptable to a range of contexts and institutions. By presenting ten unique avenues for inquiry, Crusan (2021) firmly establishes the importance of studying WAL.

The reference concludes with two pages of suggested resources for scholars who want to explore some of the most prevalent WAL research studies to date. Crusan (2021) recommends five resources, all written since 2015, with annotations that summarize the key points of each article. These articles include Crusan and colleagues’ 2016 study in which they surveyed 702 writing instructors to build a knowledge base for how instructors develop WAL. The additional resources connect some of the related terminology used to refer to WAL, such as language assessment literacy and teacher assessment literacy. The sources also explore WAL development for instructors across K-12 and higher education contexts in both U.S. and international educational settings. Ultimately, Crusan’s reference firmly establishes WAL as an imperative framework for writing program administrators, teacher trainers, and educators to understand. With Crusan’s reference entry as a resource, researchers can begin multifaceted inquiries into WAL and develop the field’s understanding of the importance and value of writing assessment in the composition classroom.

Review of Susan D. Blum’s Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)

Reviewed by Michelle Tram Nguyen, Bowling Green State University

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

For those educators whose lives are defined by the mission of building a more genuine, effective, and meaningful teaching and learning practice, you will find yourselves deeply resonating with the journeys shared by the fifteen dedicated teachers contributing to Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). These teachers in many ways troubled with the consequences of and reasons for grades, rating, ranking, and sorting. They, therefore, strive to develop various alternative assessment approaches and methods and implement them in different teaching contexts as part of a collective effort to bring back what they believe is the true focus of education—the “real learning of real individual learners,” not the grades or grading (p. xxii).

With thirteen chapters organized into three parts: foundations and models, practices, and reflections, the book does a great job of providing the readers with not only a strong rationale for going gradeless but also solid conceptual frameworks and concrete pedagogical suggestions for classroom action. The second section of the book—the practices—is no doubt the highlight of the collection. It offers authentic and vivid descriptions of what has been done in the class, what the practitioners learned along the way, and especially how the students reacted to many new ways of assessing and evaluating their work. In this section, the authors share their experiments with many approaches and methods of practicing ungrading in the classroom. Jesse Stommel, a college professor teaching humanities, is concerned with the reality in which grading emphasizes efficiency over the needs of individual learners, particularly learners from historically marginalized communities. He, instead, decided to let his students grade their work and find ways to engage them in meaningful conversations on authentic assessment, learning process, and formative feedback. His goal is to create more opportunities for learning, rather than punishing or limiting possibilities for success. Aaron Blackwelder, an experienced writing instructor in a secondary school, believes that assigning grades discourages students from the learning itself. He purposefully eliminated points and letters from the assessment practice and re-designed his instruction with project-based, problem-based, and inquiry-based learning. After employing such pedagogical practices, Blackwelder found that his students had greater satisfaction and ownership of their learning.

Additionally, Starr Sackstein, a teacher with decades of ungrading experiences, calls for a shift in the use of assessment language. For instance, a change from “getting good grades” to “achieving proficiency or mastery” (p. 75) could help reduce the side effects and unintended consequences of merely assigning a score. Such changes in the assessment approach, according to Sackstein, also help to put the emphasis back on assessing the learning progress and the understanding, rather than a temporary product. Gary Chu, in the discussion on “The Point-less Classroom: A Math Teacher’s Ironic Choice in Not Calculating Grades,” shares his experience of using the learning-assessment-feedback cycle, instead of the traditional points and grades, to offer individualized descriptive feedback and allowing students to demonstrate their understanding in multiple ways. Christopher Riesbeck, a teacher who works with college students in programming courses, advocates for a critique-driven assessment model that emphasizes effort, progress, and accomplishment. Some contributing authors (such as Susan D. Blum, Arthur Chiaravalli, and Laura Gibbs) suggest the use of “all-feedback-no-grades,” self-reflection, self-assessment, and conferencing. Other practitioners (such as Christina Katopodis and Cathy N. Davidson, Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh) share their experimentation with contract-grading, learning journal and portfolio assessment, and badging methods. Despite notable differences in approaches and methods, what these pioneers of the ungrading practices have in common is the desire to build a stronger bond of trust with their students, to give the power and agency back to the learners, and to create opportunities for substantive communication that fosters learning and growth.

In the last section of the book, the authors especially invite the audience to engage with them in their honest and earnest conversations on the failures, objections, risks, and possibilities that ungrading affords. They point out the fact that the current practice of teaching and learning operates within a structure that heavily relies on quantitative measures. And because of that very reason, they believe “challenging the conventional system does require a revolution and daily action” (p. 219). One of the huge challenges for implementing ungrading, as the authors recognize, is to get the buy-in from students, parents, and institutional administrations. To overcome such obstacles, teachers will need to devote considerable time and effort to communicate openly and richly with students and stakeholders about their assessment approach and how it could enhance intrinsic learning motivation and promote a more humane form of education. The authors also note that more research studies are needed to examine and assess the feasibility and efficacy of various ungrading approaches and methods, particularly in large-size classrooms and STEM education.

While the book makes clear that it does not address all possible considerations and questions surrounding grading and ungrading, the pioneering work these educators have done sparks insights and important ideas for teachers across areas of studies and teaching levels to reconsider all aspects of their pedagogical practices. Rhetoric and writing studies is a particularly relevant discipline to utilize the benefits of an ungrading approach. Going gradeless or de-centering grades and grading in the classroom, as the authors shared from their experimentation and experiences, can create a space for building a more equitable classroom. It also helps us fully focus on doing the “actual work” of teaching and learning—the work of building trust and relationships with students, meeting the needs of each individual learner, and providing as many opportunities as possible for taking risks and learning. As Aaron Blackwelder, one of the contributing authors, asserts: “Ultimately, I wanted my students to see learning as a process of ongoing trial and error rather than as a judgement of who they are. If my students did not fail, they did not learn” (p. 47).

Review of Robert L. Hampel’s Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education

By Rebecca Powell, University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast

Hampel, R. L. (2017). Fast and curious: A history of shortcuts in American education. Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield.

Robert L. Hampel’s (2017) Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education traces the rise and fall of correspondence schools; book series; spelling, reading, and handwriting systems; and accelerated paths to university degrees as shortcuts. Readers may see parallels between these shortcuts and for-profit universities, online education, and time-to-degree initiatives. Hampel, however, seldom makes such connections (the exception: Trump University), preferring to identify the themes and beliefs that made these shortcuts seem like viable alternatives to traditional education.

Meticulously footnoted, Hampel’s text romps through America’s attempts to shortcut education in an engaging style with a wry sense of humor, making this a quick and necessary read, particularly for assessment scholars. It reminds readers that much of what is called innovation in higher education has antecedents, and that market forces and philanthropists have long tried to “fix” higher education through assessment.

Focused on market- and university-led shortcuts in the 19th and 20th centuries, the text is divided into two parts: faster-easier shortcuts and faster-harder shortcuts. In Part I, Hampel explores the initially popular and lucrative faster-easier shortcuts. Promising success and fulfillment and endorsed by the famous, such as Norman Rockwell, and the respected, such as late Harvard president Charles Eliot, faster-easier shortcuts relied on advertising and aggressive marketing to lure customers and boost profits (p. 46).

Chapter 1 charts the growth and decline of correspondence schools in the 20th century. Hampel illustrates how the reputation of these schools, staked on the names of famous artists and writers, fell as a result of bad press surrounding debt collections and an exposé of low graduation rates and uninvolved faculty, similar to recent ProPublica exposés on for-profit universities. This chapter offers insight into how a shortcut’s failure affects the lives and beliefs of its participants and serves as a reminder of the need to assess more than profitability.

The shortcuts explored in Chapter 2 sought to democratize elite culture by making its consumption more enjoyable. In his history of CliffsNotes, the popular plot summary booklets, Hampel notes these shortcuts do more than make the content of culture accessible; they also introduce users to the language associated with the cultural artifact (p. 61). The enduring popularity of shortcuts to culture and the critics of that popularity display the dissonance at the heart of Americans’ pursuit of education: the push and pull between enjoyment and effort.  

Unlike the faster-easier shortcuts, the faster-harder shortcuts of Part II promised to be cheaper and more efficient; however, they had few takers. Frequently backed by foundations, faster-harder shortcuts tried to shorten the time-to-degree and simplify the writing and reading of the English language.  

Time-to-degree shortcuts explored in Chapter 3 used writing assessment to grant credit for exams and life experience through early admittance, dual credit, exam credit, competency, accelerated school years, and abbreviated requirements. Parent expectations, the ubiquity of high school diplomas, and the demands of professional and graduate schools kept the traditional four-year degree mostly intact. Most endeavors to shorten college and university requirements resulted in more pathways and choices to education, but few led to shortening college for any significant number of students (p. 153). The enduring legacy of time-to-degree shortcuts can best be seen in the emphasis on exams meant to measure student readiness, aptitude, and competency, such as the ACT, SAT, AP, and CLEP.

Although the time-to-degree shortcuts detailed by Hampel found few volunteers, the shortcuts endured. Currently, they are enshrined in education policy by state legislatures who require dual credit offerings and are encouraged by corporate foundations, such as Complete College America, that suggest abbreviating credit requirements and granting credit for competency.

Hampel highlights the durability of the status quo in higher education and the continued quest for shortcuts to the promises of education. Both are maintained and created through assessment, including writing assessment. This text reminds writing assessment scholars and practitioners of the fraught role assessment plays in ensuring education fulfills its promise to students and society.

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.


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

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

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.