Monday, October 8, 2012

Part I: Review of Norbert Elliot's and Les Perelman's (Eds.) _Writing Assessment in the 21st Century: Essays in Honor of Edward M. White_


Part I:  Review of Norbert Elliot's and Les Perelman's (Eds). Writing Assessment in the 21st Century:  Essays in Honor of Edward M. White

Elliot, N., & Perelman, L. (Eds.) (2012).  Writing assessment in the 21st century:  Essays in honor of Edward M. White.  New York, NY:  Hampton Press. 

By Jessica Nastal, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Writing Assessment inthe 21st Century: Essays in Honor of Edward M. White is written as “a tribute in [Ed White’s] honor. In this testament to White’s ability to work across disciplinary boundaries, the collection is also a documentary, broadly conceived, of the states of writing assessment practice in the early 21st century” (p. 2). That emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration to develop ethical assessment methods is evident throughout the introduction and book as a whole. It is also, Norbert Elliot and Les Perelman argue, one of White’s significant contributions to the field.

Elliot and Perelman explain how Writing Assessment developed out of a celebration on the 25th anniversary of Ed White’s Teaching and Assessing Writing at the 2010 Conference on College Composition and Communication and the subsequent open-source Web site dedicated to collaboration among contributors “to document the state of practice of writing assessment in the early 21st century” (p. 12). Most generally, Writing Assessment in the 21st Century traces the history of writing assessment to provide readers with an understanding of the field and suggestions for where we might head in the future.

As a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition with research areas in composition pedagogy, multilingual writing, and writing assessment, I find the book helpful in a number of ways. I appreciate seeing White’s call to encourage interdisciplinarity within writing assessment in action, as Writing Assessment’s 35 chapters include familiar names in writing assessment and composition studies (including this journal’s editors) – as well as directors of the National Writing Project, Educational Testing Service (ETS), writing-across-the-curriculum programs, federal governmental agencies, and scholars in technical communication and second language writing.

Because it is a hefty tome – over 500 pages – I will review Writing Assessment in the 21st Century in a series of posts. The first (this one) will consider the first of Writing Assessment’s four sections, and will be followed by individual posts for each section along with a final post to discuss the book as a whole. Part I: “The Landscape of Contemporary Writing Assessment” helps situate readers and demonstrates the breadth of writing assessment as it addresses how shifts within the field have come to influence our practices as educators and assessors of writing.

The result is refreshing: As I read the first section, I felt comfortable (“Oh, I recognize this idea!”) and challenged (“Wait, there’s more to understand the Harvard Entrance Exams than we’ve written about in the past hundred plus years?”). Sherry Seale Swain and Paul Le Mahieu’s “Assessment in a Culture of Inquiry,” for example, discuss how the National Writing Project created the Analytic Writing Continuum as “an opportunity to explore the potential of assessment that is locally contextualized yet linked to a common national framework and standards of performance” by including K-16 teachers, researchers, and educational testing experts (p. 46). In this sense, the book affirms White’s position on writing assessment; Swain and LeMahieu document the positive results that occur when we collaborate across disciplinary boundaries. 

Margaret Hundleby’s chapter, “The Questions of Assessment in Technical and Professional Communication,” raises many questions for me, someone who has had jobs but no coursework in technical and professional communication (TPC). Hundleby presents new ideas of validity to me as she describes dominant methods of TPC assessment in the post-World War II era, where scholars “[used] measurement to demonstrate both that the communication products could be relied on, and that the communicator was valid, or fully professional” (p.119). What does it mean to be “fully professional?” How might assessments in composition studies change if we used that form of validity? How does it affect a piece of TPC writing?

Similarly, chapters by ETS researchers cause me to ask new questions, particularly in light of my first experience as an AP exam reader this summer. In “Rethinking K-12 Writing Assessment” by Paul Deane, he states: “We start by considering writing as a construct, viewed both socially and cognitively in terms of our competency model,” which initially raised some flags for me – how can we begin with assessing students’ competencies, particularly in a standardized exam (p. 90)? But the chapter encouraged me to be more open-minded about education testing companies, too, as I realized Deane and ETS value writing as situated in local contexts, reflecting cultural practices (p. 88 and 97) and assessment as a method to reflect upon and improve teaching (p. 95). I still need to be convinced on the benefits of automated scoring, but Writing Assessment allows me to read ideas and research from a broader spectrum than I might ordinarily, and to realize we writing assessment folks share many core values.

Next: Part II: “Strategies in Contemporary Writing Assessment”

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