Academic journal article College English

Expanding the Dialogue on Writing Assessment at HBCUs: Foundational Assessment Concepts and Legacies of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Academic journal article College English

Expanding the Dialogue on Writing Assessment at HBCUs: Foundational Assessment Concepts and Legacies of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Article excerpt

Racial identity and linguistic difference are deeply embedded in the way teachers of writing think about linguistic features of oral and written performance (Ball 360; Canagarajah, "Negotiating" 62-4; J. Jordan 17-21; Gilyard, Composition 45-8; Peckham, Going North 29-32). While it is understood that race and ethnicity do not determine the language varieties students employ in their oral and written communication (Holmes 64), race and language difference remain a concern in evaluating student writing, in large part because race and language can be closely connected to the ways that teachers evaluate comprehension and rhetorical choice (Murphy 232). Institutional and social contexts further shape our readings of student "writing ability" in relation to racialized identities and language varieties. The evaluation of student writing, thus, is a complex negotiation driven by institutional context and teacher knowledge, both of which are reinforced by the curricula and evaluative materials developed and implemented by writing programs.

As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes, "[P]ost-Civil Rights culture has created a climate where racially based opinions are deemed illegitimate and a marker of racism" (10-12). And yet, as he also notes, discrimination based on race still exists, given that race still informs the socially constructed ways people, their performances, and their practices are interpreted and measured. What I want to suggest in this article is that race can inform ways of thinking about assess- ment that are not straightforward examples of discrimination. If we consider the relationship between social justice and writing assessment, then conversations on race, language, and difference within composition studies should change how assessment is handled within the classroom and writing programs in general. To engage this project, I argue that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) provide an alternative way of thinking about race and writing assessment. As such, HBCUs provide a unique site for inquiry into questions of writing assessment and social justice because of their long histories negotiating social justice agendas with an academic focus on development and knowledge building (Jarrat 2009; Kynard and Eddy 2009). Specifically, in engaging with the push-pull legacy toward language use and race that is found at HBCUs, we might enable teachers, administrators, and students to resist monolingual, racialized consequences embedded in their views of writing assessment and rethink foundational measurement concepts of reliability, validity, and fairness.

To explicate how the complex push-pull legacy of HBCUs might help us rethink foundational assessment concepts, I draw on an example from the firstyear writing program at Howard University. First, however, I historicize the push-pull legacy found at HBCUs to illustrate its importance in assessing writing at HBCUs. I examine foundational measurement concepts of validity, reliability, and fairness as they are traditionally understood and may be usefully re-examined. Finally, I examine the Howard University case, revealing the present and new first-year writing curricula with an eye toward broadening definitions of validity, fairness, and critical language use. Following a curricular and assessment analysis informed by the creative tensions of a push-pull legacy, I conclude by suggesting ways that these legacies might be used to provide purpose and aim in collaborations with writing teachers so they can envision assessment as an "ongoing rhetorical argument that evolves as new understandings are developed" (Murphy 229). In particular, I work toward building on institutional and cultural histories that can cultivate conversations about writing assessment, social justice, and language variety.

Push-Pull Legacies : HBCU s a s S i t e s for Wr i t ing As s e s sment Re s e a r ch

The sociocultural mission of most HBCUs emphasizes the cultivation of students into global leaders and critical citizens. …

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