For incoming university students, placement in college composition courses is just one step in the process towards graduation. For instructors and departments in charge of sorting these students, the process can be quite difficult. How do you decide what method(s) to use? There is, alas, no magical Sorting Hat to speed the process. Instead, you have a variety of data sources available, and you must weigh the pros and cons of each method carefully. In the end though, what you will rely on most is your knowledge of content, of the students, and of the rigors that await students in college courses in order to help students successfully navigate their time in the university.
The most common methods used to sort students in to college composition classes are standardized test scores, writing portfolios and directed self-placement. While we had hoped to provide clear delineations of the best possible methods for various situations, we found that the issue is far more complicated than any simple table or chart can present. In addition, we found that universities often use a hybrid of the methods discussed to place students in composition classes. For example, a directed self-placement program might use ACT/SAT scores and sample student writing to advise student placement.
For teachers of basic writing, knowledge of the ways in which students are placed into their classes may give valuable insight into the students’ skills and background. Knowing how your students are placed might be a good place to begin the semester, a source of common ground for a diverse group of students that may include English language learners, international students, non-traditional students and underprepared students. In addition, information on placement may be useful to those in charge of creating a basic writing program at their college or university and to those charged with making changes to or updating existing programs.
To that end, we present you with resources to which you can turn when deciding how to place students in composition courses, with the caveat that each university situation is unique, and may change as the staff in your department changes or as new information is available.
By Sarah Olson and Debra Touchette, for Karen Uehling’s ENGL 563, Spring 2011