College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Estrem et al. “Reclaiming Writing Placement.” WPA, Fall 2018. Posted 12/10/2018.

Estrem, Heidi, Dawn Shepherd, and Samantha Sturman. “Reclaiming Writing Placement.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 42.1 (2018): 56-71. Print.

Heidi Estrem, Dawn Shepherd, and Samantha Sturman urge writing program administrators (WPAs) to deal with long-standing issues surrounding the placement of students into first-year writing courses by exploiting “fissures” (60) created by recent reform movements.

The authors note ongoing efforts by WPAs to move away from using single or even multiple test scores to determine which courses and how much “remediation” will best serve students (61). They particularly highlight “directed self-placement” (DSP) as first encouraged by Dan Royer and Roger Gilles in a 1998 article in College Composition and Communication (56). Despite efforts at individual institutions to build on DSP by using multiple measures, holistic as well as numerical, the authors write that “for most college students at most colleges and universities, test-based placement has continued” (57).

Estrem et al. locate this pressure to use test scores in the efforts of groups like Complete College America (CCA) and non-profits like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which “emphasize efficiency, reduced time to degree, and lower costs for students” (58). The authors contrast this “focus on degree attainment” with the field’s concern about “how to best capture and describe student learning” (61).

Despite these different goals, Estrem et al. recognize the problems caused by requiring students to take non-credit-bearing courses that do not address their actual learning needs (59). They urge cooperation, even if it is “uneasy,” with reform groups in order to advance improvements in the kinds of courses available to entering students (58). In their view, the impetus to reduce “remedial” coursework opens the door to advocacy for the kinds of changes writing professionals have long seen as serious solutions. Their article recounts one such effort in Idaho to use the mandate to end remediation as it is usually defined and replace it with a more effective placement model (60).

The authors note that CCA calls for several “game changers” in student progress to degree. Among these are the use of more “corequisite” courses, in which students can earn credit for supplemental work, and “multiple measures” (59, 61). Estrem et al. find that calls for these game changers open the door for writing professionals to introduce innovative courses and options, using evidence that they succeed in improving student performance and retention, and to redefine “multiple measures” to include evidence such as portfolio submissions (60-61).

Moreover, Estrem et al. find three ways in which WPAs can respond to specific calls from reform movements in ways that enhance student success. First, they can move to create new placement processes that enable students to pass their first-year courses more consistently, thus responding to concerns about costs to students (62); second, they can provide data on increased retention, which speaks to time to degree; and finally, they can recognize a current “vacuum” in the “placement test market” (62-63). They note that ACT’s Compass is no longer on the market; with fewer choices, institutions may be open to new models. The authors contend that these pressures were not as exigent when directed self-placement was first promoted. The existence of such new contexts, they argue, provides important and possibly short-lived opportunities (63).

The authors note the growing movement to provide college courses to students while they are in high school (62). Despite the existence of this model for lowering the cost and time to degree, Estrem et al. argue that the first-year experience is central to student success in college regardless of students’ level when they enter, and that placing students accurately during this first college exposure can have long-lasting effects (63).

Acknowledging that individual institutions must develop tools that work in their specific contexts, Estrem et al. present “The Write Class,” their new placement tool. The Write Class is “a web application that uses an algorithm to match students with a course based on the information they provide” (64). Students are asked a set of questions, beginning with demographics. A “second phase,” similar to that in Royer and Gilles’s original model, asks for “reflection” on students’ reading and writing habits and attitudes, encouraging, among other results, student “metaawareness” about their own literacy practices (65).

The third phase provides extensive information about the three credit-bearing courses available to entering students: the regular first-year course in which most students enroll; a version of this course with an additional workshop hour with the instructor in a small group setting; or a second-semester research-based course (64). The authors note that the courses are given generic names, such as “Course A,” to encourage students to choose based on the actual course materials and their self-analysis rather than a desire to get into or dodge specific courses (65).

Finally, students are asked to take into account “the context of their upcoming semester,” including the demands they expect from family and jobs (65). With these data, the program advises students on a “primary and secondary placement,” for some including the option to bypass the research course through test scores and other data (66).

In the authors’ view, the process has a number of additional benefits that contribute to student success. Importantly, they write, the faculty are able to reach students prior to enrollment and orientation rather than find themselves forced to deal with placement issues after classes have started (66). Further, they can “control the content and the messaging that students receive” regarding the writing program and can respond to concerns across campus (67). The process makes it possible to have “meaningful conversation[s]” with students who may be concerned about their placement results; in addition, access to the data provided by the application allows the WPAs to make necessary adjustments (67-68).

Overall, the authors present a student’s encounter with their placement process as “a pedagogical moment” (66), in which the focus moves from “getting things out of the way” to “starting a conversation about college-level work and what it means to be a college student” (68). This shift, they argue, became possible through rhetorically savvy conversations that took advantage of calls for reform; by “demonstrating how [The Write Class process] aligned with this larger conversation,” the authors were able to persuade administrators to adopt the kinds of concrete changes WPAs and writing scholars have long advocated (66).


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Webber, Jim. Reframing vs. Artful Critique of Reform. Sept. CCC, 2017. Posted 10/31/2017.

Webber, Jim. ”Toward an Artful Critique of Reform: Responding to Standards, Assessment, and Machine Scoring.” College Composition and Communication 69.1 (2017): 118-45. Print.

Jim Webber analyzes the responses of composition scholars to the reform movement promoted by entities like College Learning Assessment (CLA) and Complete College America (CCA). He notes that the standardization agenda of such groups, intended to improve the efficiency of higher education, has suffered setbacks; for example, many states have rejected the Common Core State Standards (118-19). However, in Webber’s view, these setbacks are temporary and will be followed by renewed efforts by testing and measurement agencies to impose their own criteria for student success (119).

The standardization these groups urge on higher education will, they claim, give parents and students better information about institutions and will ultimately serve as grounds for such moves as “performance funding” (119). The overall goal of such initiatives is to move students through college as quickly as possible, especially into majors (119).

Webber recognizes two prongs of composition’s response to such pressures to portray “college students and parents as consumers” (119). One thread urges “reframing” or “redirecting” the efforts of the testing industry and groups like CLA and CCA. For Webber, this viewpoint adopts a “realist style.” Scholars who espouse reframing urge that compositionists work within the current realities created by the power of the testing and standardization apparatus to “expand” the meanings of terms like “college readiness” (120), adjusting them in ways that reflect composition’s inclusive, humanistic values (122)–that is, in Frank Farmer’s term, “insinuat[ing]” the professional ethos of composition and its authority into the standardization apparatus (qtd. in Webber 122).

Scholars who adopt this realist style, Webber claims, “figur[e] public policy as accommodation to the world” (141n5); moreover, in Webber’s view, they accept the description of “the way the world is” (133) put forward by CCA and others as “irreducibly competitive” and thus “[reduce] the scope of policy values to competition, efficiency, and instrumentality” (141n5).

Webber cites scholars in this vein who contend that the protests of scholars and writing professionals have been and will be effectively “ignored” by policymakers (137). More productive, in this view, is collaboration that will at least provide “a seat at the policy table,” giving professionals a chance to infuse the debate with their values (133).

Webber presents the 2011 Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing as an example of how the reframing position “work[s] within the limits established by the dominant discourse of reform” (123). He notes that Bruce Comiskey was unable to discern any “apparent difference” between the aspirations of the Framework and those of the reform movement (125; emphasis original). For Webber, this approach sets up composition professionals as “competition” for the testing industry as the experts who can make sure students meet the reformers’ criteria for successful learning (124). Reframing in this way, Webber says, requires “message management” (123) to make sure that the response’s “strategic” potential is sustained (121).

Scholars who urge reframing invoke Cornel West’s “prophetic pragmatism” (122), which requires them to:

think genealogically about specific practices in light of the best available social theories, cultural critiques, and historiographic insights and to act politically to achieve certain moral consequences in light of effective strategies and tactics. (qtd. in Webber 122)

Webber contends that reframers interpret this directive to mean that “public critique” by compositionists “cannot deliver the consequences they desire” (123; emphasis original). Thus, a tactical approach is required.

The second thread in compositionists’ response to the reform movement is that of critique that insists that allowing the reform industry to set the terms and limits of the discussion is “to grant equivalence between our professional judgments and those of corporate-political service providers” (125-26). Webber quotes Judith Summerfield and Philip M. Anderson, who argue that “managing behavior and preparing students for vocations” does not accord with “a half-century (at the least) of enlightened classroom study and socio-psycholinguistic research” (qtd. in Webber 125).

In Webber’s view, the strands of reframing and critique have reached a “stalemate” (126). In response to the impasse, Webber explores the tradition of pragmatism, drawing on John Dewey and others. He argues that reframers call on the tenets of “melioration” and “prophetic critique” (127). “Meliorism,” according to Webber’s sources, is a linguistic process in that it works toward improving conditions through addressing the public discourse (127). In discussing West’s prophetic pragmatism as a form of “critical melioration,” Webber focuses on the “artfulness” of West’s concept (128).

Webber sees artfulness as critique “in particular contexts” in which ordinary people apply their own judgments of the consequences of a theory or policy based on the effects of these theories or policies on their lives (128-29). An artful critique invites public participation in the assessment of policies, an interaction that, according to West, functions as “antiprofessionalism,” not necessarily for the purpose of completely “eliminating or opposing all professional elites” but rather to “hold them to account” (qtd. in Webber 129).

Webber argues that proponents of reframing within composition have left out this aspect of West’s pragmatism (128). Webber’s own proposal for an artful critique involves encouraging such active participation by the publics actually affected by policies. He contends that policymakers will not be able to ignore students and parents as they have composition professionals (137).

His approach begins with “scaling down” by inviting public inquiry at a local level, then “scaling up” as the conversation begins to trigger broader responses (130). He presents the effects of student protests as the University of Missouri in 2015 as an example of how local action that challenges the power of elites can have far-reaching consequences (137-38). Compositionists, he maintains, should not abandon critique but should “expand our rhetoric of professionalism to engage the antiprofessional energy of local inquiry and resistance” (138).

As a specific application of his view, Webber provides examples of how composition professionals have enlisted public resistance to machine-scoring of student writing. As students experience “being read” by machines, he contends, they become aware of how such policies do not mesh with their concerns and experiences (137). This awareness engages them in critically “problematizing” their perspectives and assumptions (131). In the process, Webber argues, larger, more diverse audiences are encouraged to relate their own experiences, leading to “a broader public discussion of shared concerns” (131).

For Webber, drawing on the everyday judgments of ordinary people as to the value of policies put forward by professionals contrasts with the desire to align composition’s values with those of the standardization movement in hopes of influencing the latter from within. Opening the debate beyond strategic professionalism can generate a pragmatism that more nearly fits West’s prophetic ideals and that can “unsettle the inevitability of reform and potentially authorize composition’s professional perspectives” in ways that reframing the terms of the corporate initiatives cannot (135).

 

 


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Hassel and Giordano. Assessment and Remediation in the Placement Process. CE, Sept. 2015. Posted 10/19/2015.

Hassel, Holly, and Joanne Baird Giordano. “The Blurry Borders of College Writing: Remediation and the Assessment of Student Readiness.” College English 78.1 (2015): 56-80. Print.

Holly Hassel and Joanne Baird Giordano advocate for the use of multiple assessment measures rather than standardized test scores in decisions about placing entering college students in remedial or developmental courses. Their concern results from the “widespread desire” evident in current national conversations to reduce the number of students taking non-credit-bearing courses in preparation for college work (57). While acknowledging the view of critics like Ira Shor that such courses can increase time-to-graduation, they argue that for some students, proper placement into coursework that supplies them with missing components of successful college writing can make the difference between completing a degree and leaving college altogether (61-62).

Sorting students based on their ability to meet academic outcomes, Hassel and Giordano maintain, is inherent in composition as a discipline. What’s needed, they contend, is more comprehensive analysis that can capture the “complicated academic profiles” of individual students, particularly in open-access institutions where students vary widely and where the admissions process has not already identified and acted on predictors of failure (61).

They cite an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education stating that at two-year colleges, “about 60 percent of high-school graduates . . . have to take remedial courses” (Jennifer Gonzalez, qtd. in Hassel and Giordano 57). Similar statistics from other university systems, as well as pushes from organizations like Complete College America to do away with remedial education in the hope of raising graduation rates, lead Hassel and Giordano to argue that better methods are needed to document what competences college writing requires and whether students possess them before placement decisions are made (57). The inability to make accurate decisions affects not only the students, but also the instructors who must alter curriculum to accommodate misplaced students, the support staff who must deal with the disruption to students’ academic progress (57), and ultimately the discipline of composition itself:

Our discipline is also affected negatively by not clearly and accurately identifying what markers of knowledge and skills are required for precollege, first-semester, second-semester, and more advanced writing courses in a consistent way that we can adequately measure. (76)

In the authors’ view, the failure of placement to correctly identify students in need of extra preparation can be largely attributed to the use of “stand-alone” test scores, for example ACT and SAT scores and, in the Wisconsin system where they conducted their research, scores from the Wisconsin English Placement Test (WEPT) (60, 64). They cite data demonstrating that reliance on such single measures is widespread; in Wisconsin, such scores “[h]istorically” drove placement decisions, but concerns about student success and retention led to specific examinations of the placement process. The authors’ pilot process using multiple measures is now in place at nine of the two-year colleges in the system, and the article details a “large-scale scholarship of teaching and learning project , , , to assess the changes to [the] placement process” (62).

The scholarship project comprised two sets of data. The first set involved tracking the records of 911 students, including information about their high school achievements; their test scores; their placement, both recommended and actual; and their grades and academic standing during their first year. The “second prong” was a more detailed examination of the first-year writing and in some cases writing during the second year of fifty-four students who consented to participate. In all, the researchers examined an average of 6.6 pieces of writing per student and a total of 359 samples (62-63). The purpose of this closer study was to determine “whether a student’s placement information accurately and sufficiently allowed that student to be placed into an appropriate first-semester composition course with or without developmental reading and studio writing support” (63).

From their sample, Hassel and Giordano conclude that standardized test scores alone do not provide a usable picture of the abilities students bring to college with regard to such areas as rhetorical knowledge, knowledge of the writing process, familiarity with academic writing, and critical reading skills (66).

To assess each student individually, the researchers considered not just their ACT and WEPT scores and writing samples but also their overall academic success, including “any reflective writing” from instructors, and a survey (66). They note that WEPT scores more often overplaced students, while the ACT underplaced them, although the two tests were “about equally accurate” (66-67).

The authors provide a number of case studies to indicate how relying on test scores alone would misrepresent students’ abilities and specific needs. For example, the “strong high school grades and motivation levels” (68) of one student would have gone unmeasured in an assessment process using only her test scores, which would have placed her in a developmental course. More careful consideration of her materials and history revealed that she could succeed in a credit-bearing first-year writing course if provided with a support course in reading (67). Similarly, a Hmong-speaking student would have been placed into developmental courses based on test-scores alone, which ignored his success in a “challenging senior year curriculum” and the considerable higher-level abilities his actual writing demonstrated (69).

Interventions from the placement team using multiple measures to correct the test-score indications resulted in a 90% success rate. Hassel and Giordano point out that such interventions enabled the students in question to move more quickly toward their degrees (70).

Additional case studies illustrate the effects of overplacement. An online registration system relying on WEPT scores allowed one student to move into a non-developmental course despite his weak preparation in high school and his problematic writing sample; this student left college after his second semester (71-72). Other problems arose because of discrepancies between reading and writing scores. The use of multiple measures permitted the placement team to fine-tune such students’ coursework through detailed analysis of the actual strengths and weaknesses in the writing samples and high-school curricula and grades. In particular, the authors note that students entering college with weak higher-order cognitive and rhetorical skills require extra time to build these abilities; providing this extra time through additional semesters of writing moves students more quickly and reliably toward degree completion than the stress of a single inappropriate course (74-76).

The authors offer four recommendations (78-79): the use of multiple measures, use of assessment data to design a curriculum that meets actual needs; creation of well-thought-out “acceleration” options through pinpointing individual needs; and a commitment to the value of developmental support “for students who truly need it”: “Methods that accelerate or eliminate remediation will not magically make such students prepared for college work” (79).