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.


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