Institutionalizing Literacy: The Historical Role of College Entrance Examinations in English

Institutionalizing Literacy: The Historical Role of College Entrance Examinations in English

Institutionalizing Literacy: The Historical Role of College Entrance Examinations in English

Institutionalizing Literacy: The Historical Role of College Entrance Examinations in English


Mary Trachsel discusses how college entrance examinations have served as an instrument for the academic institutionalization of literacy, arguing that entrance examinations chart a change of view from literacy as achievement to literacy as aptitude.

Trachsel begins her study by outlining current theory on literacy. She identifies two separate approaches to the task of defining literacy: a "formal" approach that explains literacy as an exclusively academic activity and a "functional" approach that lies in basic opposition to mainstream academic values and practices.

Trachsel then examines testing as an academic practice that enforces a primarily formal definition of literacy. In presenting a thorough documentation of historical developments in entrance examinations in English, she notes that while these examinations originated in academic departments of English, they have long since been taken over by bureaucratic agencies, the values and goals of which are at odds with the concept of literacy upheld by the professional community of English studies scholars and teachers.

In her final chapter, Trachsel presents a critique of present-day English studies. She illustrates her critique with a historical consideration of entrance examinations in English, providing samples of actual test questions that indicate the larger ideological struggles forming the history of English studies.

In voicing her concern with the ways in which the standard entrance examination movement traces the development of a professional identity for English studies specialists, Trachsel encourages all professionals in the field to devote their attention to articulating their own definition of literacy and devising a means for assessing literacy that is in accord with that definition.


The field of composition studies has responded eagerly to a recent explosion of research and theory on the subject of literacy, invoking that body of scholarship to inform composition theory as well as pedagogy. in embracing literacy as its area of professional expertise, writing instruction stakes its claim in the very center of the academic curriculum, for as the opening sentence of Rhetoric and Reality, James Berlin study of writing instruction in American colleges in the twentieth century, maintains, "Literacy has always and everywhere been the center of the educational enterprise" (1).

Curious as to why a concept presumably so essential to the institutional mission of the academy should be relegated almost exclusively to composition studies, a relatively disempowered segment of the discipline of English studies, I began this book as an attempt to trace the evolution of the academy's construction of literacy. in piecing together the historical development of the concept, I have focused my attention on the record of college entrance examinations, convinced that any attempt to measure or assess literacy skills must be grounded in a definition of literacy itself. What I have discovered in the process of examining those documents, along with a good bit of printed discourse surrounding their formulation and use, is a gradual but steadily intensifying cleavage of English studies as it has struggled to meet certain fundamental demands of professionalization.

On the surface, the separate disciplinary divisions resulting from this cleavage can be identified as reading--or literary studies--on the one hand, and writing--or composition studies--on the other. But as the historical narrative emerging from the pages of this book reveals, underlying the surface manifestations of disciplinary fragmentation are philosophical and traditional conflicts that constitute an intradisciplinary dialogue concerning the social and cultural mission of the American academy, the professional status of English studies and its position within the academic curriculum, and the . . .

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