Part I: Review of Norbert Elliot’s and Les Perelman’s (Eds.) _Writing Assessment in the 21st Century: Essays in Honor of Edward M. White_

Part I:  Review of Norbert Elliot’s and Les Perelman’s (Eds). Writing Assessment in the 21st Century:  Essays in Honor of Edward M. White

Elliot, N., & Perelman, L. (Eds.) (2012).  Writing assessment in the 21st century:  Essays in honor of Edward M. White.  New York, NY:  Hampton Press.

By Jessica Nastal, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Writing Assessment inthe 21st Century: Essays in Honor of Edward M. White is written as “a tribute in [Ed White’s] honor. In this testament to White’s ability to work across disciplinary boundaries, the collection is also a documentary, broadly conceived, of the states of writing assessment practice in the early 21st century” (p. 2). That emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration to develop ethical assessment methods is evident throughout the introduction and book as a whole. It is also, Norbert Elliot and Les Perelman argue, one of White’s significant contributions to the field.

Elliot and Perelman explain how Writing Assessment developed out of a celebration on the 25th anniversary of Ed White’s Teaching and Assessing Writing at the 2010 Conference on College Composition and Communication and the subsequent open-source Web site dedicated to collaboration among contributors “to document the state of practice of writing assessment in the early 21st century” (p. 12). Most generally, Writing Assessment in the 21st Century traces the history of writing assessment to provide readers with an understanding of the field and suggestions for where we might head in the future.

As a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition with research areas in composition pedagogy, multilingual writing, and writing assessment, I find the book helpful in a number of ways. I appreciate seeing White’s call to encourage interdisciplinarity within writing assessment in action, as Writing Assessment’s 35 chapters include familiar names in writing assessment and composition studies (including this journal’s editors) – as well as directors of the National Writing Project, Educational Testing Service (ETS), writing-across-the-curriculum programs, federal governmental agencies, and scholars in technical communication and second language writing.

Because it is a hefty tome – over 500 pages – I will review Writing Assessment in the 21st Century in a series of posts. The first (this one) will consider the first of Writing Assessment’s four sections, and will be followed by individual posts for each section along with a final post to discuss the book as a whole. Part I: “The Landscape of Contemporary Writing Assessment” helps situate readers and demonstrates the breadth of writing assessment as it addresses how shifts within the field have come to influence our practices as educators and assessors of writing.

The result is refreshing: As I read the first section, I felt comfortable (“Oh, I recognize this idea!”) and challenged (“Wait, there’s more to understand the Harvard Entrance Exams than we’ve written about in the past hundred plus years?”). Sherry Seale Swain and Paul Le Mahieu’s “Assessment in a Culture of Inquiry,” for example, discuss how the National Writing Project created the Analytic Writing Continuum as “an opportunity to explore the potential of assessment that is locally contextualized yet linked to a common national framework and standards of performance” by including K-16 teachers, researchers, and educational testing experts (p. 46). In this sense, the book affirms White’s position on writing assessment; Swain and LeMahieu document the positive results that occur when we collaborate across disciplinary boundaries.

Margaret Hundleby’s chapter, “The Questions of Assessment in Technical and Professional Communication,” raises many questions for me, someone who has had jobs but no coursework in technical and professional communication (TPC). Hundleby presents new ideas of validity to me as she describes dominant methods of TPC assessment in the post-World War II era, where scholars “[used] measurement to demonstrate both that the communication products could be relied on, and that the communicator was valid, or fully professional” (p.119). What does it mean to be “fully professional?” How might assessments in composition studies change if we used that form of validity? How does it affect a piece of TPC writing?

Similarly, chapters by ETS researchers cause me to ask new questions, particularly in light of my first experience as an AP exam reader this summer. In “Rethinking K-12 Writing Assessment” by Paul Deane, he states: “We start by considering writing as a construct, viewed both socially and cognitively in terms of our competency model,” which initially raised some flags for me – how can we begin with assessing students’ competencies, particularly in a standardized exam (p. 90)? But the chapter encouraged me to be more open-minded about education testing companies, too, as I realized Deane and ETS value writing as situated in local contexts, reflecting cultural practices (p. 88 and 97) and assessment as a method to reflect upon and improve teaching (p. 95). I still need to be convinced on the benefits of automated scoring, but Writing Assessment allows me to read ideas and research from a broader spectrum than I might ordinarily, and to realize we writing assessment folks share many core values.

Next: Part II: “Strategies in Contemporary Writing Assessment”

JWA at IWAC conference in Savannah

The Journal of Writing Assessment wanted to give a special thanks to some people who helped promote JWA at the recent International Writing Across the Curriculum conference in Savannah, Georgia.

First, thanks to Nick Carbone of Bedford/St. Martin’s who gave us space at his table to distribute our fliers.  This space was centrally located and was in a high traffic flow area of the conference.  Thank you so much, Nick, for your support!

Secondly, we want to thank Twenty Six LLC for featuring JWA on their banner as part of the portfolio of their work. Twenty Six LLC designed and hosts the JWA website and we really appreciate their excellent work!

Thanks again!  The IWAC conference was excellent and there were many sessions that focused on issues of writing assessment.  We welcome submissions from this conference to JWA!

Diane Kelly-Riley and Peggy O’Neill, Editors

Susan Callahan’s review of George Hillock’s _The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning_.

Here is another review from the Journal of Writing Assessment’s archives:

Please read Susan Callahan’s review:  “Testing the tests” from Volume 2 Number 1 of the Journal of Writing Assessment from Spring 2005.

Callahan reviews George Hillock’s The testing trap:  How state writing assessments control learning. New York:  Teachers College Press,   Pub Date: April 2002, 240 pages Paperback: $23.95, ISBN: 0807742295 Cloth: $54, ISBN: 0807742309

Anthony Edgington’s review of Lad Tobin’s _Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Mediations, and Rants_

Here is another review from the JWA archives:

Please read Anthony Edgington’s “Understanding Student Writing–Understanding Teachers Reading Contextualizing Reading and Response” from Volume 2 Number 1 of the Journal of Writing Assessment.

Edgington reviews Lad Tobin’s Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Mediations, and Rants  Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2004. 416 pp. Paper $34.50, ISBN 1-57273-394-2.

Terry Underwood’s review of Liz Hamp-Lyons and William Condon’s _Assessing the Portfolio_

The Journal of Writing Assessment has many reviews in its archives.

Please read Terry Underwood’s “Portfolios across the centuries:  A review of Assessing the Portfolio from Volume 1 Number 2 of JWA.

You can find out more information about this text here:  Hamp-Lyons, L. and Condon, W. (2000). Assessing the portfolio:  Principles for practice, theory and research.  Cresskill, NJ:  Hampton Press.

Review of Sandra Murphy and Terry Underwood’s _Portfolio Practices: Lessons from Schools, Districts and States_

Murphy, S. and Underwood, T. (2000).  Portfolio practices:  Lessons from schools, districts and states.  Norwood, MA:  Christopher-Gordon.

As we start the JWA Reading List, we want to highlight some of the past reviews of noteworthy books on writing assessment that are available in the archives the Journal of Writing Assessment.  All of these reviews are available as free downloads.

To begin, we’d like to draw your attention to Susan Callahan’s 2003 review of Sandra Murphy and Terry Underwoods’s Portfolio Practices:  Lessons from Schools, Districts and States published in 2000 by Christopher-Gordon.

Diane Kelly-Riley and Peggy O’Neill, Editors
Journal of Writing Assessment

Review of Michael Neal’s _Writing Assessment and the Revolution in Digital Texts and Technologies_

Neal, M. R. (2010). Writing assessment and the revolution in digital texts and technologies. New York: Teachers College Press. 168 pgs.

by Peggy O’Neill, Loyola University Maryland

In this text, Neal offers a comprehensive look at the intersection of writing, assessment and digital technology that is appropriate for both writing teachers and researchers. He draws on a breadth of sources, clearly articulating complex ideas with minimal jargon. He also uses many examples from his own experiences as a college writing instructor, program administrator, assessment researcher, and parent. These anecdotes keep theoretical discussions grounded in the realities we all face whether in the classroom or the conference room. He provides practical advice for evaluating multimedia texts and frankly addresses many of the challenges these texts pose for instructors.

The text is a good source for teachers, scholars, and program administrators regardless of their expertise in writing assessment or digital technology. Both of these areas, after all, are here to stay whether we want them or not, and both are influencing what happens in our programs and classrooms. You can preview the Table of Contents and read the foreword by Janet Swenson and part of Neal’s introduction here.

The text is divided into two parts: In Part I, Neal explores writing assessment as a technology and then in Part II shifts to focus on writing assessment with technology. He aims to convince readers that we have a limited opportunity “to reframe our approaches to writing assessment so that they promote a rich and robust understanding of language and literacy” (p. 5).

Neal doesn’t waste time arguing about whether or not we should include multimedia texts in writing courses. As he says, multimedia writing (which may also go by other names such as hypertechs, new media, hypermedia, digital composing) is increasingly part of the world beyond the classroom as well as inside it. Instead, Neal examines how this shift influences writing instruction and assessment. In fact, Neal seems to see multimedia writing as a means of challenging the narrowly defined tasks currently associated with large scale testing, which continues to privilege timed, impromptu essays (often written by hand).

As a reader, I found Neal’s text well informed and easy to read. He starts by situating writing assessment as a technology, then reviews different critical stances toward technology in general and the implications of these positions for writing assessment. The discussion is wide ranging, drawing on scholars familiar to most compositionists such as Brian Huot, Cindy Selfe, Cheryl Ball, Anne Wysocki, and Christine Haas, as well as those coming from other traditions such as Langdon Winner, George Madaus, N. Katherine Hayles, and Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas.

Neal weaves these sources together to identify the underlying assumptions and cultural narratives that characterize writing assessments as technologies. He articulates the tensions that exist between multimedia literacies of the 21st century and the assessments rooted in 20th century—writing and writing courses becoming more multimodal, and assessments of writing becoming more mechanized (think of machine scoring). The disconnect, as Neal says in various ways throughout the text, is not lost on teachers who realize that students compose in a variety of formats outside of the classroom and who often have to meet learning outcomes that include multimedia literacies, but who also must prepare students for exams that privilege traditional impromptu essays.

Neal sees several strategies for resolving—or at least lessening—the tension between emerging literacies and writing assessments. He advocates getting involved in decision-making about assessments, admitting that it is often difficult whether at local or national levels. At the classroom or program-level, he provides some practical information on how to develop appropriate evaluation criteria for responding to student projects.

He also looks to construct validity to “provide a framework that can help us at a most fundamental level in determining which digital assessment technologies to include in our writing classes, curriculum, and pedagogy” (p. 112).  Neal’s argument here, though technical, is accessible to readers who are not assessment experts. He explains how construct validity allows us to determine the appropriateness, accuracy and social consequences of multimedia writing and assessment technologies.

Neal also advocates using writing outcomes, such as the WPA Outcomes for First-Year Composition, as a framework for thinking through what kinds of hypertechs to include or exclude from a course or program. Outcomes, he explains, can “provide a starting point to talk about the ways in which the content of composition” is changing in terms of digital literacies and technologies (p. 120).


While Neal admits to being an advocate of new media, he avoids coming off as a zealot. As someone who is far from an early adopter, I appreciate his willingness to present a more balanced approach. For example, he admits that hyperattention—which is characterized by multiple streams of information, rapid switching from one task to another, a desire for high levels of stimulation, and a low tolerance for boredom, according to N. Katherine Hayles—is a controversial characteristic of the digital revolution. For many academics, as he notes, it is one that is quite troubling.

Overall, Neal’s text addresses important components of both writing assessment and digital technologies relevant to all of us involved in the teaching of writing.


Welcome to the Journal of Writing Assessment’s Reading List!  At this site, we’ll provide quick reviews of recent writing assessment publications.  These reviews will cover the main points of the publication, provide an overview of the methodology, identify controversies and then talk about the implications for practitioners of writing assessment.