Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Assessing Student Writing Proficiency in Graduate Schools of Social Work

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Assessing Student Writing Proficiency in Graduate Schools of Social Work

Article excerpt

IN 2001 THE AUTHORS PUBLISHED an article in JSWE (Alter & Adkins, 2001) that focused on the writing problems among graduate social work students. In a review of the literature and through a writing assessment project, we attempted to discover if students are entering graduate social work schools with more serious writing deficiencies than in the past, and if our school through writing assistance and other methods, could be successful in producing graduates with first-rate writing skills.

Our work in this area is based on the premise that graduate social work programs should graduate students who can (a) critically analyze cases and case studies, (b) synthesize and organize findings in a clear and coherent manner with full development and detail, (c) present conclusions in a persuasive voice, and (d) write with control over diction, syntactic variety, and transition (White, 1994). This premise stems from our conviction that clients' well-being is frequently dependent on social workers' ability to express clearly the meaning of their professional judgments and build convincing arguments that persuade law enforcement personnel, policy makers, and funders of a certain path of action (Alter & Adkins, 2001).

In this article we focus more narrowly on the assessment of students' writing ability, currently a hot topic in the educational literature (Breland, Bridgeman, & Fowles, 1999; Chapman, 1990; Elliot, 2005; Hult, 1987; Huot, 1996; Powers & Fowles, 2002; White, 1994). With high-stakes testing firmly entrenched as a national policy for kindergarten through 12th grade, and writing assessment now included in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Graduate Record Examination (GRE), our nation has clearly acknowledged a determination to measure and track the writing proficiency of its students from kindergarten through college.

Before beginning our discussion, however, we quote the wise observation of Wolcott and Legg (1998) that the problem of understanding exactly what is meant by writing assessment is

   compounded by the dualistic, almost
   opposing, terms in which discussions
   of writing assessment, as well as assessment
   in general, are often framed:
   internal or classroom assessment versus
   external, high-stakes assessment; "top-down"
   versus "bottom-up" assessments;
   formative versus summative evaluation;
   norm-referenced assessments that compare
   students against each other versus
   criterion-referenced assessments that
   evaluate students against standards; and
   indirect versus authentic or performance
   assessments. (p. 1)

Wolcott and Legg summarize deftly the problems surrounding writing assessment. More recently, the difficulty in attaining reliability and validity in assessment has also been explored (Elliot, 2005). Such complexity notwithstanding, perhaps now is the time to include graduate education in this discussion of writing assessment, specifically graduate social work studies. To do so we must ask and answer a series of questions.

Following are the major questions we address in this study: If writing assessment is to become a standard of our educational practices at the graduate level, for what purpose might it be used? What forms can writing-assessment writing take? What implementation is sues must be confronted during the design of assessment projects? We conclude this paper by describing another graduate-level assessment project we conducted during the fall of 2003-2004 and what we learned from this project that might assist other schools in the development of their own writing assessment strategies.

Purposes and Forms of Writing Assessments

Why would a graduate school undertake to assess the writing skills of their students? Furthermore, what form of writing assessment should be used? Perhaps the answers to these two questions are self-evident, yet they are the first questions we confronted when we decided to replicate the assessment project we first implemented in 1998. …

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