Most colleges and universities in the USA have some system of placement into writing courses at the entry level. WPAs may find their system a boon or a bane, or both at the same time. Placement systems have many stakeholders, often with agendas that clash. Institutions use writing placement to recruit students, commercial firms use it to make money, teachers use it to define their courses, students use it to confirm their self-image. WPAs are often in the middle and in need of advice, resources, and documentation. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions.
• For reasons of politics or public relations, the administration wishes to install a dysfunctional placement system. How argue against it?
• Out of mere expediency or cost, the administration wishes to replace a better placement system with a worse. How defend the old system?
• Teachers may be tired of struggling with a labor-intensive method. How revive their energies?
• A current system of placement may be forcing changes for the worse in current courses. How keep this from happening?
• Students, already over-tested in the schools, may object more and more to a writing placement examination. Are there ways to test less or test less objectionably and still place students well?
• A system with traditional credentials behind it—e.g., The College Board’s Advanced Placement Examinations—does not work well in placing students within a local writing curriculum (it’s an equivalency exam, not a placement exam). How argue against such a well-respected brand name?
• For whatever reasons, the WPA needs to provide evidence that the current method of placement is working. How do that?
• The WPA must provide reasons to change to a different system of writing placement, or to eliminate placement entirely. How convince administration and other faculty?
Answers and solutions do exist. What does it take to revamp a system already in place? Probably the most important move is to step back, take stock, and engage in some creative rethinking. Peter Elbow (1996, 2003) has led the way in this. This requires an attention, however, to the problems as they are embedded in local conditions, an awareness of the wide variety of feasible systems, a familiarity with existing successful programs, and a knowledge of the extensive research findings.