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How is Writing Assessment Used Effectively to Place Students Into First-year Composition Courses

How is writing assessment used effectively to place students into first-year composition courses?

The identity of “basic writing student” is typically defined by post-secondary institutions through their use of various methods, usually involving some form of assessment. Assessment for initial placement may take many forms, but most forms reflect each institution’s need for relatively quick, inexpensive, reliable, and valid methods for placing students into specific first-year composition classrooms that would best meet the students’ (and institution’s) needs.

However, several factors determine how well a student’s needs are met, or even can be met, by a given placement method. Assessment of student abilities and placement through testing can be problematic, since it is influenced by each institution’s goals of limiting access only to students capable of doing college-level work, while upholding certain writing standards (variously defined or idealized). And ideally, assessment should allow an institution to do these things while expending a minimum of resources.

Because impromptu, timed, single-draft essay tests are often seen as fulfilling an institution’s and students’ requirements to at least some degree, these are often the assessment methods of choice for first-year writing placement. Such testing can show immediately a student’s difficulties in basic mechanics or organization that could be addressed in a BW course, which would then help the student understand fundamental requirements of later academic and professional writing. This may be why, in Richard Haswell’s 2005 overview of first-year placement methods, the first four of the ten first-year assessment/placement practices he lists (used by U.S. institutions) rely on timed/impromptu essay testing (“Post-secondary Entrance,” 2).

When they decide to rely on impromptu essays for placement, institutions are faced with many questions; below are just a few basic ones to consider:

  • Is placement using impromptu essays fair for the student—can it measure essential characteristics that determine if a writing student needs preliminary coursework or extra help?
  • If it does, how can essays be evaluated reliably for correct placement?
  • What are some of the problems with using this kind of assessment?
  • How do other methods of assessment, both direct and indirect measurements of writing ability, compare?
  • How do people in the college composition community and other education interest groups compare in their views on whether timed essay assessment is a legitimate method for evaluating student abilities?
  • And what can we learn from composition scholars to improve assessment for placement (or can it be improved, or is it appropriate to use)?

WORK CITED

Haswell, Richard H. “Post-secondary Entrance Writing Placement.” CompPile (2005): <http://comppile.tamucc.edu/placement.htm>
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Page last modified on April 16, 2008, at 07:09 AM