Coming to Terms: Theorizing Writing Assessment in Composition Studies

Coming to Terms: Theorizing Writing Assessment in Composition Studies

Coming to Terms: Theorizing Writing Assessment in Composition Studies

Coming to Terms: Theorizing Writing Assessment in Composition Studies

Excerpt

On September 18, 1989, I returned my first set of graded essays. There were six Ds, eleven Cs, five Bs, no As, no Fs, and one missing paper—I still have the gradebook. The Ds weighed most heavily on my mind. In my carefully scripted percentages, this first essay was worth 5 % of the total grade for the course; those students with Ds had suddenly seriously damaged their chances for an A, yet they had barely begun the course. One of them—I can still see his face—met with me for about an hour after class that day, trying to understand how he could have gotten a D. “I’m not asking you to change the grade,” I remember him saying several times, but he did want to understand how he had done so poorly. I remember painstakingly going over his paper with him, and although I do not recall the particulars of the discussion, I do remember feeling that my explanations were entirely inadequate. In class we had discussed “focus,” “coherence,” “content,” “organization,” “style,” and “mechanics,” but I am certain that these concepts floated over the class’s heads as abstractions; I am not certain that I had a clear handle on them myself at the time. Worse—or at least I thought so at the time—my plan for the course, which followed departmental guidelines, did not allow for revision after I graded a paper. The grades stood. Looking at the gradebook today, I am not surprised to see that the final grades for the class were all Bs and Cs; no one failed, but no one made an A either. Without the option to revise their essays, students would have had to exhibit a fairly high proficiency in writing prior to entering the class—a condition that would have placed them in second semester composition rather than my first semester class, or even exempted them from the composition requirement entirely. Add to that my relatively vague understanding and explanations of the criteria for evaluation, and I do not see how any of my students could have excelled.

Sometime during that same semester, I heard about portfolios as a way of deferring grading until students had had a chance to revise. While I used peer workshops in my class so that students received feedback on rough drafts prior to handing in their essays, I had never been introduced to a procedure that allowed students to use teacher commentary for . . .

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