College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

Addison, Joanne. Common Core in College Classrooms. Journal of Writing Assessment, Nov. 2015. Posted 12/03/2015.

Addison, Joanne. “Shifting the Locus of Control: Why the Common Core State Standards and Emerging Standardized Tests May Reshape College Writing Classrooms.” Journal of Writing Assessment 8.1 (2015): 1-11. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Joanne Addison offers a detailed account of moves by testing companies and philanthropists to extend the influence of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) to higher education. Addison reports that these entities are building “networks of influence” (1) that will shift agency from teachers and local institutions to corporate interests. She urges writing professionals to pay close attention to this movement and to work to retain and restore teacher control over writing instruction.

Addison writes that a number of organizations are attempting to align college writing instruction with the CCSS movement currently garnering attention in K-12 institutions. This alignment, she documents, is proceeding despite criticisms of the Common Core Standards for demanding skills that are “not developmentally appropriate,” for ignoring crucial issues like “the impact of poverty on educational opportunity,” and for the “massive increase” in investment in and reliance on standardized testing (1). But even if these challenges succeed in scaling back the standards, she contends, too many teachers, textbooks, and educational practices will have been influenced by the CCSSI for its effects to dissipate entirely (1). Control of professional development practices by corporations and specific philanthropies, in particular, will link college writing instruction to the Common Core initiative (2).

Addison connects the investment in the Common Core to the “accountability movement” (2) in which colleges are expected to demonstrate the “value added” by their offerings as students move through their curriculum (5). Of equal concern, in Addison’s view, is the increasing use of standardized test scores in college admissions and placement; she notes, for example, “640 colleges and universities” in her home state of Colorado that have “committed to participate” in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) by using standardized tests created by the organization in admissions and placement; she points to an additional 200 institutions that have agreed to use a test generated by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) (2).

In her view, such commitments are problematic not only because they use single-measure tools rather than more comprehensive, pedagogically sound decision-making protocols but also because they result from the efforts of groups like the English Language Arts Work Group for CCSSI, the membership of which is composed of executives from testing companies, supplemented with only one “retired English professor” and “[e]xactly zero practicing teachers” (3).

Addison argues that materials generated by organizations committed to promoting the CCSSI show signs of supplanting more pedagogically sound initiatives like NCTE’s Read-Write-Think program (4). To illustrate how she believes the CCSSI has challenged more legitimate models of professional development, she discusses the relationship between CCSSI-linked coalitions and the National Writing Project.

She writes that in 2011, funds for the National Writing Project were shifted to the president’s Race to the Top (3). Some funding was subsequently restored, but grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation specifically supported National Writing Project sites that worked with an entity called the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) to promote the use of the Common Core Standards in assignment design and to require the use of a “jurying rubric ” intended to measure the fit with the Standards in evaluating student work (National Writing Project, 2014, qtd. in Addison 4). According to Addison, “even the briefest internet search reveals a long list of school districts, nonprofits, unions, and others that advocate the LDC approach to professional development” (4). Addison contends that teachers have had little voice in developing these course-design and assessment tools and are unable, under these protocols, to refine instruction and assessment to fit local needs (4).

Addison expresses further concern about the lack of teacher input in the design, administration, and weight assigned to the standardized testing used to measure “value added” and thus hold teachers and institutions accountable for student success. A number of organizations largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation promote the use of “performance-based” standardized tests given to entering college students and again to seniors (5-6). One such test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), is now used by “700 higher education institutions” (5). Addison notes that nine English professors were among the 32 college professors who worked on the development and use of this test; however, all were drawn from “CLA Performance Test Academies” designed to promote the “use of performance-based assessments in the classroom,” and the professors’ specialties were not provided (5-6).

A study conducted using a similar test, the Common Core State Standards Validation Assessment (CCSSAV) indicated that the test did provide some predictive power, but high-school GPA was a better indicator of student success in higher education (6). In all, Addison reports four different studies that similarly found that the predictor of choice was high-school GPA, which, she says, improves on the snapshot of a single moment supplied by a test, instead measuring a range of facets of student abilities and achievements across multiple contexts (6).

Addison attributes much of the movement toward CCSSI-based protocols to the rise of “advocacy philanthropy,” which shifts giving from capital improvements and research to large-scale reform movements (7). While scholars like Cassie Hall see some benefits in this shift, for example in the ability to spotlight “important problems” and “bring key actors together,” concerns, according to Addison’s reading of Hall, include

the lack of external accountability, stifling innovation (and I would add diversity) by offering large-scale, prescriptive grants, and an unprecedented level of influence over state and government policies. (7)

She further cites Hall’s concern that this shift will siphon money from “field-initiated academic research” and will engender “a growing lack of trust in higher education” that will lead to even more restrictions on teacher agency (7).

Addison’s recommendations for addressing the influx of CCSSI-based influences include aggressively questioning our own institutions’ commitments to facets of the initiative, using the “15% guideline” within which states can supplement the Standards, building competing coalitions to advocate for best practices, and engaging in public forums, even where such writing is not recognized in tenure-and-promotion decisions, to “place teachers’ professional judgment at the center of education and help establish them as leaders in assessment” (8). Such efforts, in her view, must serve the effort to identify assessment as a tool for learning rather than control (7-8).

Access this article at http://journalofwritingassessment.org/article.php?article=82


Leave a comment

Sullivan, Patrick. Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Class. CCC, Sept. 2015. Posted 09/15/2015.

Sullivan, Patrick. “The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 67.1 (2015): 6-34. Print.

Patrick Sullivan urges composition scholars to embrace creativity as a fundamental component of an enriched writing curriculum. In Sullivan’s view, although researchers and scholars outside of composition have steadily moved creativity to the core of their models of cognition and of the kinds of thinking they feel are needed to meet 21st-century challenges, writing scholars have tended to isolate “creativity” in creative-writing courses. Sullivan presents a “most essential question”: “Might there be some value in embracing creativity as an integral part of how we theorize writing?” (7).

A subset of questions includes such issues as current definitions of creativity, emerging views of its contribution in myriad contexts, and the relationship between creativity and important capacities like critical thinking (7).

Sullivan surveys works by educators, psychologists, neuroscientists, and others on the value of creativity and the ways it can be fostered. This work challenges the view that creativity is the special domain of a limited number of special people; rather, the research Sullivan presents considers it a “common and shared intellectual capacity” (12) responsible for the development of culture through ongoing innovation (9) as well as essential to the flexible thinking and problem-solving ability needed beyond the classroom (8-9, 15).

Scholars Sullivan cites position creativity as an antidote to the current focus on testing and accountability that promotes what Douglas Hesse calls the “extraordinarily narrow view of writing” that results from such initiatives as the Common Core Standards (qtd. in Sullivan 18). Sullivan draws on Ken Robinson, who contends that current models of schooling have “educated out” our natural creativity: “[M]ost children think they’re highly creative; most adults think they’re not” (qtd. in Sullivan 9).

Other scholars urging the elevation of creativity as central to cognition include intelligence researcher Robert J. Sternberg, for whom creativity entails three components: “synthetic ability (generating ideas), analytical ability (evaluating ideas, critical thinking), and practical ability (translating ideas into practice and products)” (10). Sullivan compares models of “habits of mind” developed by other scholars with the habits of mind incorporated into the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” collaboratively generated by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project; he notes that many such models, including the “Framework,” consider creativity “an essential twenty-first-century cognitive aptitude” (12). He recommends to composition scholars the international view that creativity is equal in importance to literacy, a view embodied in the Finnish educational system and in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which would replace testing for memorization with testing for students’ ability “to think for themselves” (Amanda Ripley, qtd. in Sullivan 13).

Importantly, Sullivan argues, incorporating creativity into classrooms has crucial implications for overall cognitive development. According to the researchers Sullivan cites, expanding the kinds of activities and the kinds of writing students do enhances overall mental function (14), leading to the “rhetorical dexterity” (Shannon Carter, qtd. in Sullivan 20) essential to negotiating today’s rapidly changing rhetorical environments (21).

As further evidence of the consensus on the centrality of creativity to learning and cognition, Sullivan presents the 2001 revision of Bloom’s 1956 Taxonomy. This revision replaces “synthesis and evaluation” at the pinnacle of cognitive growth with “creating” (19). Discussing the revised Taxonomy to which they contributed, Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl note that the acquisition of the “deep understanding” necessary to “construction and insight” demands the components inherent in “Create” (qtd. in Sullivan 19-20).

Such deep understanding, Sullivan argues, is the goal of the writing classroom: “[I]ts connection here to creativity links this luminous human capacity to our students’ cognitive development” (20). Similarly, concern about students’ transfer of the intellectual work of academic writing to other domains and a recognition of the importance of metacognition to deep learning link the work of creativity scholars to recent composition theory and applications (20). Sullivan suggests shifting from “critical thinking” to “creative and critical thinking” because “[a]ll good thinking . . . is creative in some way” (16).

Sullivan sees the increased focus within writing studies on multimodal and other diverse uses of writing as a move toward reframing public conceptions of academic writing; he presents “desegregat[ing] creative writing” as one way of “actively expanding our definition of academic writing” (21). He lists many ways of incorporating creativity into classrooms, then provides the unit on creativity that he has embedded in his first-year writing class (22). His goal is to “provide students with an authentic experience of the joys, challenges, and rewards of college-level reading, writing, and thinking” (22-23). To this end, the course explores what Paul Hirst calls “knowledge domains,” specifically, in Sullivan’s class, “traditional assignments” examining how knowledge functions in history and the human sciences (23-24), with the unit on creativity “[s]andwiched” between them (24).

In this unit, students consider the definition of creativity and then write poems and stories. The centerpiece is an individual project in which students produce “their own work of art” such as “a sculpture, a painting, a drawing, a photograph, a collage, or a song” (24). Sullivan furnishes examples of student work, including quotes illustrating the metacognitive understanding he hopes to inculcate: “that creativity, and the arts in particular, provide a unique and important way of looking at the world and producing knowledge” (25).

The final assignment is an “unessay,” which bans standard formats and invites students to “[i]nvent a new form!” (26). Sullivan shares examples of student responses to this assignment, many involving multimodal components that gesture toward a more inclusive embrace of what Kathleen Blake Yancey calls “what our students know as writing” (qtd. in Sullivan 28). Ultimately, Sullivan contends, such diverse, creatively rich pedagogy will realize David Russell’s hope of casting writing not as “a single elementary skill” but rather “as a complex rhetorical activity embedded in the differentiated practices of academic discourse communities” (qtd. in Sullivan 29), and, importantly, Douglas Hesse’s hope of communicating to students that writing is not an isolated academic exercise but rather “a life activity with many interconnected manifestations” (qtd. in Sullivan 18).