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Coming To Terms

Coming To Terms: A Theory of Writing Assessment

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Coming To Terms
    Book Description:

    In a provocative book-length essay, Patricia Lynne argues that most programmatic assessment of student writing in U.S. public and higher education is conceived in the terms of mid-20th century positivism. Since composition as a field had found its most compatible home in constructivism, she asks, why do compositionists import a conceptual frame for assessment that is incompatible with composition theory? By casting this as a clash of paradigms, Lynne is able to highlight the ways in which each theory can and cannot influence the shape of assessment within composition. She laments, as do many in composition, that the objectively oriented paradigm of educational assessment theory subjugates and discounts the very social constructionist principles that empower composition pedagogy. Further, Lynne criticizes recent practice for accommodating the big business of educational testing-especially for capitulating to the discourse of positivism embedded in terms like "validity" and "reliability." These terms and concepts, she argues, have little theoretical significance within composition studies, and their technical and philosophical import are downplayed by composition assessment scholars. There is a need, Lynne says, for terms of assessment that are native to composition. To open this needed discussion within the field, she analyzes cutting-edge assessment efforts, including the work of Broad and Haswell, and she advances a set of alternate terms for evaluating assessment practices, a set of terms grounded in constructivism and composition. Coming to Terms is ambitious and principled, and it takes a controversial stand on important issues. This strong new volume in assessment theory will be of serious interest to assessment specialists and their students, to composition theorists, and to those now mounting assessments in their own programs.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-482-6
    Subjects: Education, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. INTRODUCTION: Choosing Our Terms
    (pp. 1-16)

    On September 18, 1989, I returned my first set of graded essays. There were six Ds, eleven Cs, five Bs, no As, no Fs, and one missing paper—I still have the gradebook. The Ds weighed most heavily on my mind. In my carefully scripted percentages, this first essay was worth 5% of the total grade for the course; those students with Ds had suddenly seriously damaged their chances for an A, yet they had barely begun the course. One of them—I can still see his face—met with me for about an hour after class that day, trying...

    (pp. 17-43)

    Assessment and objectivity have a long-standing conceptual link in the history of education in the United States. Regardless of the specific subject matter, the job of “testing”—a colloquial synonym of “assessment”—has been to arrive at some “accurate” or “truthful,” i.e., objective, measurement of a student’s ability. The connection between assessment and objectivity, however, is neither necessary nor absolute, in spite of both professional and popular tendencies to join the terms. The connection is, in fact, both historical and rhetorical, at least in the case of writing assessment.

    The story of large-scale writing assessment in the United States is...

    (pp. 44-60)

    Theoretically, large-scale writing assessment measures students’ ability to work with written language, i.e., their literate ability. The relationship implied here between assessment and literacy, however, is deceptively simple. On the one hand, assessment operates from the premise that tests can reflect some measure of ability. This premise relies on a historically positivist paradigm which accepts both the possibility of measurement and the value of it. Of course, some scholars, such as James A Berlin (1994) and Peter Elbow (1993), challenge the notion that such measurement is even possible, but since testing remains a significant part of the landscape, these challenges...

    (pp. 61-75)

    Despite the tension between the two, the clash between the objectivist paradigm of assessment and the contextual paradigm of literacy has not simply resulted in an impasse. Large-scale writing assessment exhibits historical and ideological tendencies toward an objectivist epistemology, and while those tendencies are politically weighted, they are neither inescapable nor inevitable. At the post-secondary level researchers, scholars, and administrators have been implementing some alternative approaches to large-scale writing assessment more closely aligned with contemporary theories of literacy. Although these alternative methods are still subject to the influences of objectivism, they are genuine attempts, if not to move outside of...

    (pp. 76-99)

    The work of developing theoretical principles specifically for writing assessment has begun in the last decade, but it remains in nascent form. Influential texts in composition studies such as those by scholars in the CCCC Committee on Assessment and by Brian Huot suggest principles and procedures for contextually-and rhetorically-aware assessment; however, neither presents a fully-articulated theory of writing assessment—the former because of the project’s rhetorical purpose, the latter because the author considers such a move premature.³⁰ While both of these texts have been influenced by positivist educational measurement thought, both also develop positions which correspond more nearly with contemporary...

    (pp. 100-114)

    The work described in the last chapter, particularly that of Haswell and Broad, has a lot of potential. Part of that potential lies in the minimal use they each make of conventional educational measurement theory. I would argue, however, that the places where composition assessment theorists rely on or answer to educational measurement are less successful. When we try to think differently, our work has significantly more potential to engender a true paradigm shift.

    At the moment, however, our writing assessments, particularly in large-scale and high-stakes situations, do not often show the mark of a contextual paradigm. The tests, for...

    (pp. 115-141)

    In “Toward a New Theory of Writing Assessment,” Brian Huot contends that “it is premature to attempt any full-blown discussion of the criteria for newer conceptions of writing assessment” (1996b, 561), a position he reiterates in 2002. I am not sure this was true, even in 1996, and I am even more convinced that it is not true now. Huot, like many compositionists, chooses to support contemporary validity theory on the belief that contemporary educational measurement theory will work for writing assessment. And it is possible. It is certainly the safer and surer route. If we do what the establishment...

    (pp. 142-161)

    In the previous chapter, I presented examples of what meaningful and ethical assessment might look like. These examples, however, have been somewhat disjointed, pieces of practices rather than practices as a whole. Moreover, they have been for the most part hypothetical, albeit drawn from my own and others’ experience. In this chapter, I analyze actual practices for the ways in which they reflect the theory I am presenting here, and for the ways in which they extend our understanding of it.

    First, I look at published accounts of practices at two institutions: the University of Cincinnati and Washington State University....

  9. CONCLUSION: Coming To Terms
    (pp. 162-170)

    In “Theory and Practice,” Charles I. Schuster analyzes the connections between these two “sides” of scholarship and concludes “that theory is a form of practice and that practice is the operational dimension of theory” (1991, 43). They function in tension, he claims, each grounding the other in ways that make them effectively inseparable. Not surprisingly, he finds the most compelling work in composition studies “positioned on that ambivalent threshold shared by both theory and practice,” not readily categorizable as one or the other (1991, 46).

    Schuster’s analysis helps explain my own dissatisfaction with composition studies’ scholarship on large-scale writing assessment....