Academic journal article Composition Studies

The Changing Face of Writing Assessment

Academic journal article Composition Studies

The Changing Face of Writing Assessment

Article excerpt

THE CHANGING FACE OF WRITING ASSESSMENT

BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS ESSAY

Libby Allison, Lizbeth Bryant, and Maureen Hourigan. Grading in the Post-Process Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton-Cook, 1997.

Bob Broad. What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2003.

Charles R. Cooper and Lee Odell. Evaluating Writing: The Role of Teachers' Knowledge about Text, Learning, and Culture. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1999.

Richard H. Haswell, ed. Beyond Outcomes: Assessment and Instruction Within a University Writing Program. Westport, CT: Ablex, 2001.

Brian Huot. (Re)Articulating Writing Assessment for Teaching and Learning. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2003.

Daniel Royer and Roger Gilles. Directed Self-Placement: Principles and Practices. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2003.

Richard Straub and Ronald F. Lunsford. Twelve Readers Reading: Responding to College Student Writing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1995.

Kathleen Blake Yancey and Brian Huot. Assessing Writing Across the Curriculum: Diverse Approaches and Practices. Greenwich, CT: Ablex, 1997.

Frances Zak and Christopher Weaver, eds. The Theory and Practice of Grading Writing: Problems and Possibilities. Albany: State U of New York P, 1998.

We never used to think much about the assessment of writing. We resented all the grading of papers and sorting of students but went about it as a grim duty, generally doing unto our students as our professors had done unto us. That was it. As Pat Belanoff puts it in her preface to the Zak and Weaver collection of essays on grading, "It is the dirty little thing we do in our closets" (ix). And we agreed heartily when we heard Peter Elbow say at a conference that no teacher should put a grade on a student's writing unless his or her job depended on it. As for writing assessment beyond our own classes, we never gave it a moment's thought. Program assessment and assessment theory were out of sight and out of mind. Everyone today who writes on the subject begins by admitting that most teachers see assessment as the most disagreeable aspect of teaching. Writers on the subject work intensely to make their openings interesting, knowing that their readers are likely to prefer almost anything, except grading papers, to reading about assessment. Typical is Charles Schuster's engaging foreword to the Allison, Bryant, and Hourigan book under review, an extended personal narrative of one of his own misadventures with grading a particularly troublesome student's paper. Or the paragraph you are now reading, if anyone is.

But those attitudes belong to the past, along with grammar drills and orthography. The sample of recent books under review represents some of the developments that have brought writing assessment out of the closet, into the realm of scholarship, and onto every writing teacher's to-read list. The number of books for this review could easily be tripled: I've omitted the half dozen books on responding to writing that have followed Straub and Lunsford's landmark Twelve Readers Reading, the many technical books on educational assessment, the small library of books and articles published in the 1980s and 1990s that mention assessment as they provide wisdom about teaching, and, of course, my own books and articles on the subject. Scholarly work on assessment is arguably the most creative and varied in the entire area of composition studies. It has become impossible to be an informed teacher of writing in the twenty-first century and remain uninformed about writing assessment.

The pervasive political dimensions of this turn to assessment have little to do with the scholarship under review, though they are an unpleasant reminder of the fraudulent uses of tests for political purposes, best exemplified in the supposed Texas miracle and in the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" legislation. Tests, as a replacement for instruction, are a cynical manipulation of the public desire to see better writing in the schools at little cost; it is as if widespread distribution of thermometers could solve the health-care problems in America. …

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