Rearticulating Writing Assessment for Teaching and Learning

Rearticulating Writing Assessment for Teaching and Learning

by Brian Huot

ISBN: 9780874214499

Publisher Utah State University Press

Published in Calendars/Readers & Writers

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


Naming this book has been quite an adventure. When the idea for its title and shape first came to mind, I originally thought to call it Reclaiming Assessment for the Teaching of Writing. Of course, as I thought through the title and reexamined the idea, I realized that to reclaim something meant that it had to be claimed in the first place. Unfortunately, writing assessment has never been claimed as a part of the teaching of writing. As far back as 1840, writing assessment was hailed as a better technology (chapter six contains a discussion of writing assessment as technology) for assessing student knowledge (Witte, Trashel, and Walters 1986). The use of essay placement exams at Harvard and other prestigious institutions in the nineteenth century was justified in response to the growing perception that students were under-prepared for the rigors of university study. This notion of assessment as something done because of a deficit in student training or teacher responsibility is still with us in the plethora of accountability programs at the state level for public schools and in the recent national assessment programs advocated by the George W. Bush administration and adopted by Congress. Throughout the twentieth century, writing assessment became the tool of administrators and politicians who wished to maintain an efficient and accountable educational bureaucracy (Williamson 1994). The literature about classroom assessment was limited to an irregular series of volumes on grading student writing (see Judine 1965, for an example). At any rate, it would be inaccurate for me to advocate the re-claiming of writing assessment, when in fact it has yet to be claimed for the teaching of writing.


Although I contend that writing assessment has yet to be claimed for teaching writing, I have also come to challenge the whole notion of claiming assessment at all. Probably my dissatisfaction comes from the association of claiming with the concept of the stakeholder, a concept I discuss in more detail in chapters two and seven. Although I recognize that assessment must be a multi-disciplinary enterprise, something that should never be driven completely by the beliefs and assumptions of any single group, I don't believe that all stakeholders should have equal claim, since those closest to teaching and learning, like students and teachers, need to have the most input about writing assessment and all important teaching decisions. If assessment is to be used as a positive force in the teaching of writing, then it makes sense that those with the most knowledge and training be those who make the most important decisions about student assessment. Using writing assessment to promote teaching is one of the most crucial messages in this book.

Once I rejected the idea of reclaiming assessment, for awhile I renamed the volume Re-Imagining Assessment for the Teaching of Writing, because I now realized that the assessment of writing had never been central to its teaching and that claiming was a problematic term for many reasons. Because this volume is an ambitious work that clearly extends beyond simply staking out a claim for teachers to assessment, I thought the idea of re-imagining would work because it seemed grander, bigger, more in keeping with the ambitious nature of my purpose. As I began to work on the volume, however, "re-imagine" seemed too grand, too big, too abstract. And, of course one could argue that we had never imagined assessment for the teaching of writing. In a response to an earlier, shorter version of chapter four published in College Composition and Communication, Alan Purves (1996) had objected to my use of the term "theory," as being too big and abstract since he thought what I had constructed was something practical, important and useful, but not theoretical. My concern with theory is that it can be construed as distinct from practice, and my intent in this book is to blur rather than emphasize any distinctions between theory and practice. As I detail in chapter seven, I was flattered by what he had to say, even if I didn't completely agree with him. On the other hand, I decided "re-imagine" was too big, since what I propose throughout this volume is less grand and more a reasoned response to the pressures, pit-falls and potential benefits from the assessment of student writing. My ideas that writing assessment can become a more unified field with a central focus (chapter two), that grading, testing and assessing student writing are separate acts incorrectly lumped together and that makes us miss the importance of assessment for the teaching of writing (chapter three), that all assessment practice contains theoretical implications (chapter four), that responding to student writing should focus more on the way we read student work and write back to them (chapter five), that assessment has been developed as a technology and can benefit greatly from being revised as research (chapter six), and that writing assessment can never be understood outside of its practical applications (chapter seven) are less a re-imagining than they are a way of seeing something old and familiar as something new and novel. It is in this spirit that I came to call this volume (Re)Articulating Writing Assessment for Teaching and Learning. I do think that the individual chapters I mention above and about which I will elaborate more fully can add up to a new understanding of writing assessment. My purpose in writing this volume was to look at the various ways in which assessment is currently constructed and to articulate a new identity for writing assessment scholars and scholarship.


Before I outline the basic tenets that guide this volume, its scope, what the reader can expect throughout and how the various chapters work toward its overall purpose, it is important to talk about what I mean by (re)articulating writing assessment and even what I mean by the term "assessment"-what it is I hope to explain about assessment's connection to teaching and learning, why in some ways I think we need to reframe assessment for its pedagogical value, and why I think writing assessment has never been fully connected to teaching. I chose "articulation" as the what I wanted to do for assessment in this volume because it describes a kind of attention assessment needs but has never received. We need to talk about assessment in new ways, to recognize how ubiquitous it is within the process of reading and writing. Since we are constantly making judgments about the texts we read, we need to see how our judgments about texts get articulated into specific assessments or evaluations (terms I use interchangeably throughout the volume) and how these articulations affect students and the learning environment. My use of "(re)" illustrates that assessment has been articulated already, and that part of my work is to articulate it in new ways. It is not entirely clear to me that assessment has ever been articulated in ways advocated here-ways that support rather than detract from the teaching and learning of writing. I use the parentheses around "(re)" to indicate this ambiguity.

As is already clear in my discussion of articulation, assessment can be used to mean many things. I wish I had some definitive idea of how we could define assessment. Of course, we could point to some limited notion of the word as being involved with evaluating the performance or value of a particular event, object, or idea. This limited definition, though, it seems to me, misses the larger impact of our judgments and would not necessarily be focused within the context of school, or more specifically, the teaching of writing. It is one thing for me to read a piece of writing and say whether or not I like it. It's another thing for me to make that statement in the classroom or on a student's paper. I would contend that the type of class-room, subject, level of instruction, and other contextual factors would further define what impact my statement of value would have on an individual or others interested in that individual. The role I have or my identity in each of these situations also influences how someone might take or respond to my judgment. I remember my daughter being in third or fourth grade and having me help her with a paper she was writing. It took a little effort for me to actually convince her that she could improve her writing by having someone respond to it and then rewriting. She received an A+ on that particular paper and for awhile would exclaim to everyone how she was going to let me read her writing and revise accordingly (my word not hers) because I had helped her get so high a grade. Although she knew what I did for a living, it really carried no weight with her. It was only after she had actually profited from my judgment and advice that she would actually seek it, something I might add that she no longer does. My role as her father did not automatically identify me as an expert to her. On the other hand, as an instructor in a writing classroom, I am often aware of the great impact my judgment about writing could have on a particular student or the entire class. I also understand that the attention students accord my judgments is not unrelated to my role as the grade-giver in the class.

The idea that we as teachers may often not wish to state a specific judgment leads me to consider that an assessment in the formal sense may be more than just a specific judgment, but rather an articulation of that judgment. The form and the context of the articulation gives us some other ways to think and talk about a new understanding for assessment. Certainly, a statement I might make in class about something I value in writing or in a specific text could impact my students thinking or cause them to take up a specific action. For example, Warren Combs and William L. Smith (1980) found that although students in a course that emphasized sentence combining would write sentences with a greater number of T-units, students without sentence combining instruction would produce similar sentences by just being told that the teacher/examiner liked longer sentences. In other words, our statements as teachers in the context of a class can have a great deal of power or influence over students. Grades are probably the best example of this. Giving students an A or even a B, even when we suggest revision, probably doesn't encourage them to revise, because the grade itself carries more weight as an evaluation than what we can say about revision. While grades are but one kind of evaluation we can give students, they tend to carry more weight than other assessment articulations because they are more formal and codified. Grades are part of a larger system of values that have been used to identify or label people. In education, grades are a totalizing evaluative mechanism. It is common for people to sum up their experiences as students by saying, "I was an A or C student." In recent years, it has become common to see bumper stickers that proclaim "My son or daughter is an A student at [blank] School," as if this says something inherently good about that child or his or her parents.

It's important to note that while we may give a grade for many different reasons, what ends up getting articulated becomes a part of that larger system of values that has weight and influence far beyond the evaluative judgment we have initially made. Moves, then, to articulate our value judgments about student work in different ways illustrate the separation that exists between the judgment(s) we make and the statement(s) we can make about those judgments. These principles also apply to tests about writing that function outside the classroom. In fact, we might argue that assessment outside the classroom is even more formal and more codified than that within the classroom. For example, in placement testing we actually decide for a student where she will be placed for the next fifteen weeks or, perhaps even more importantly, where she will begin her college or university level writing instruction. Other writing assessments have similar power and can allow or prevent students from entering certain programs or receiving a certain credential. While we can base our judgments of student writing upon many different features, we can also articulate those judgments in different ways, and both the judgments and their articulation can have profound effects upon students and their ability to succeed. Furthermore, the articulation of judgment can easily be codified and assigned cultural value. I am reminded of the story one of my students told me about his two daughters. In the state of Kentucky, students submit writing portfolios as part of a state assessment program. The portfolios are assigned one of four scale points, but instead of using numbers, the scale is divided into Distinguished, Proficient, Apprentice, and Novice. During an argument the two children were having, one of them replied, "What do you know, you're only a novice."

If assessment consists of the judgments we make about student writing ability, the form these judgments can take, and the context within which these judgments are made, then a new articulation for assessment requires that we attend to both the way we make the judgments and the form of our statement(s) about them. Important to this understanding is a consciousness about the level of formality different articulations can take and what influence they can have. In defining assessment as both judgment and the articulation of that judgment, I am specifically interested in neutralizing assessment's more negative influences and accentuating its more positive effects for teaching and learning. Just as Samuel Messick's (1989b) theory of validity includes building a rationale for assessing in the first place, I think we need to examine why we might want to communicate a specific judgment to students or others about a student's writing-what possible educational value would such an articulation serve for this particular student at this pedagogical moment?

Actually, my intention to (re)articulate writing assessment as a positive, important aspect of designing, administrating and theorizing writing instruction has its roots in early conceptions of assessment as progressive social action. The idea of assessment as social action is not new. Since its inception in ancient China, assessment was supposed to disrupt existing social order and class systems (Hanson 1993). However, as we all know, assessment has rarely delivered on this promise. Instead, assessment has been used as an interested social mechanism for reinscribing current power relations and class systems.

This overall negative impression of assessment is exacerbated in composition, since one of the driving impulses in the formulation of composition as an area of study in the 1970s was against current-traditional rhetorical practices that emphasized correctness and the assessment methods to enforce it. One of the responses from the composition community to the negative effects of assessment has been to avoid assessment altogether. One of the results of composition's avoidance of assessment issues has been that major procedures for assessment like holistic scoring were developed by testing companies based upon theoretical and epistemological positions that do not reflect current knowledge of literacy and its teaching. If we can influence and change the agenda for social action in tests and testing, we can change writing assessment. Constructing an agenda for writing assessment as social action means connecting assessment to teaching, something people like Edward White (1994) and Richard Lloyd-Jones (1977), among others, have been advocating for nearly three decades. Instead of envisioning assessment as a way to enforce certain culturally positioned standards and refuse entrance to certain people and groups of people, we need to use our assessments to aid the learning environment for both teachers and students.


Excerpted from "Rearticulating Writing Assessment for Teaching and Learning" by Brian Huot. Copyright © 0 by Brian Huot. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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