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Composition Forum 44, Summer 2020

Pivoting Assessment: Away from Isolation, Toward Opportunity Structures

Holly Shelton

Poe, Mya, Asao B. Inoue, and Norbert Elliot, eds. Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity. WAC Clearinghouse, 2018.

Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity (2018) continues the antiracist work of editors Mya Poe, Asao B. Inoue, and Norbert Elliot. This 400-page collection moves not just away from oppressive assessment structures, but toward new forms of assessment using “opportunity structures,” or structures that advance student opportunity. Finding or developing these structural systems of opportunity is rooted in a social justice tradition starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The editors describe this book project emerging from the confluence of several individual initiatives addressing equity in assessment over a crucial momentum-building period of 2012-2016. These individual efforts flowed into the driving question of this collaborative volume: “How can we ensure that writing assessment leads to the advancement of opportunity?” (15). Importantly, this book establishes a central conversation on equitable assessment.

As previously noted (Klotz), this volume accomplishes two major turns, reorienting from a deficit, elementalist framework to an ecological one and shifting validity measures toward justice. The volume in its entirety provides a comprehensive call to action, acknowledging a variety of intersectional issues and ecological systems that work to benefit or harm students involving race, gender, and socio-economic status. This particular review will focus on the book’s insights and implications for multilingual writers.

The collection is organized around four sections that focus on historiography, admission and placement, outcomes design, and teacher research. Rather than leading with an abstract, each chapter begins by clearly identifying a research problem, research questions, literature review, methodology, conclusions, qualifications, and directions for further study. This format previews each study with more depth than a traditional abstract and makes the key points more immediately accessible as well. The book clearly defines or refines both familiar and unfamiliar testing terminology like validity, fairness, and violence, tethering these concepts to justice via student experience and impact.

Multilingual issues are explicitly centralized in the book’s introduction, and the editors forefront that linguistic norms emerge from particular cultural and disciplinary contexts situated in time and space. To counter positions that institutional systems and assessments reflect and promote future workplace skills, the editors point to various studies that indicate noncognitive traits (perseverance, openness, etc.), rather than cognitive language skills, are the biggest predictor of future economic success (8). It is a false view, then, that performing a particular linguistic standard is the sole or even primary goal for writing assessment.

Of particular note, the final chapter, The Braid of Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity: Eighteen Assertions on Writing Assessment with Commentary, is a collaborative document developed by the contributing authors and editors. They synthesize and respond to the material of earlier chapters while setting a trajectory for advancing the shifts they propose. The chapter reads as both a manifesto and outcome statement for the field, channeling the spirit of the volume as a whole. That is, these scholars outline principles for moving toward actionable reform, not just away from current structures - moving to advance opportunity, not just diminish harm.

The assertions in this final chapter address specific topics organized by history, theory, methodology, outcomes, classroom and writing center research, institutional research, purchased assessments, policies, and next generation research. The overall effect is reminiscent of former collaborative works such as Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (Adler-Kassner and Wardle) and Students’ Right to their Own Language (CCCC). The collaborators outline disciplinary knowledge and values, or rather concepts and convictions. For example, the assertions “Social justice historiography reveals normative fixations and yields reflexive engagement,” and, “Analytic techniques are best understood and used when they are linked to clearly articulated, ethical assessment questions” (381) each define a characteristic of assessment informed by research, current understandings, and disciplinary expertise.

Contributing authors Hammond and Harms address imperial language impulses in their respective chapters, Toward a Social Justice Historiography for Writing Assessment and Assessment’s Word Work: Early Twentieth Century American Imperialism and the Colonial Function of the Monolingual Writing Construct. These chapters trace how monolingual ideologies emerge in contexts directly related to other forms of violence. Hammond analyzes publications in English Journal in the US from 1912-1935, and finds that literacy issues stand as proxy for immigration concerns and language “deficiencies” based on white language standards are blamed on communities themselves. An illustrative 1917 image of language students participating in a “melting pot ceremony” shows them physically walking through a pot structure in a symbolic nationalist baptism (55). In two case studies from 1913 and 1931, teachers encourage students “correcting (or, we might say, perfecting)” non-standardized language usage for both themselves and their peers (64). Standard English is promoted for greater opportunities while other language varieties are associated with racial stereotyping and public shaming. Hammond argues that “the ways we write and remember history can support the work of subverting unjust assessment ecologies by undercutting the (hi)stories sustaining them” (68).

Similarly, Harms examines the Monroe Report of 1925 assessing standardized testing in the US colony of the Philippines during the period of “imported” American education system, which included English as a medium of instruction. The education commission makes two particularly interesting observations: firstly, Filipinos fail the English-based test for civil service at a higher rate than Americans, and secondly, many school administrators tend to use “typical examples of Filipinized English,” which the commission views as even well-educated community leaders’ failure to achieve language proficiency (126). They briefly question, but never resolve, the validity of their testing mechanisms, and consider the locally developing English variety to be patterns of errors, rather than a valid language variety. Harms writes, “When we make decisions about language—and we must make decisions about it—we have to look beyond our local contexts, disciplinary boundaries and familiar histories that ask us to not pay attention to the colonialist ways of thinking” (131).

Meanwhile, several authors of later chapters address continuing disparities for multilingual and/or international students in first year writing courses. In Writing Assessment and Responsibility for Colonialism, Gomes identifies US linguistic imperialism continuing through foreign student recruitment. In a case study thought experiment, Gomes provides a visual flowchart of domestic and international student placement in credit-bearing FYW, non-credit basic writing, and intensive English language to demonstrate a lack of communication and consistency between different university units. While discrepancies are unintentional, they impact student financial burden and degree completion. Significant colonial risks include “economic exploitation of international students; marginalization of international student labor; linguistic containment and English linguistic imperialism; and suppressing student agency” (218). Gomes calls for writing programs to take at least partial responsibility for placement mechanisms at their institutions.

Nulton and Peckham’s Writing Program Assessment, Attitude, and Construct Representation: A Descriptive Study investigates a portfolio system in which international students with non-English primary languages were scoring significantly lower than their peers. The researchers were concerned that differential portfolio scores at their university indicated a deficit model of language skills and began piloting an alternative method of assessment focusing on the intrapersonal domain, prioritizing “attitude over argument” and shifting assessment from performance to communication. Their study indicates that positive attitudes to school writing—demonstrated elsewhere as crucial to learning—can be improved and sustained, demonstrating the importance of shifting paradigms from assessment done “to-them” to “with-them” by including student feedback during assessment development (311).

This book does not provide a step-by-step manual for assessment that can be standardized and implemented across institutions. To advance student opportunity in different localities, institutions must attend to their own situated nature and the diverse students and communities they serve. However, each chapter models the kind of work that can and should be done locally while the final 18 assertions provide mechanisms for support and accountability in this process. Instead of (re-)discovering and (re-)building equitable assessment principles and structures through isolated initiatives at particular classrooms or institutions, program administrators, curriculum developers, and instructors can turn to this book as a cohesive, comprehensive starting point for reorienting assessment toward student opportunity.

Works Cited

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. University Press of Colorado, 2015.

Committee on CCCC Language Statement. Students’ Right to Their Own Language. College English, vol. 36, no. 6, 1974, pp. 709-726.

Klotz, Sarah. Review of Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity. Journal of Writing Assessment Reading List. 25 October 2018.

Return to Composition Forum 44 table of contents.