Assessment and Evaluation of Writing: An Attempt to Alleviate Tension Between Recognized Theories and Practices
"We need to recognize that composition is probably going to remain the stepchild of rather unwilling English departments, that research in teaching and learning to write will continue to scrape by on the edges of several disciplines, and that few of those who will teach writing in American schools and universities will get much training or background as part of their regular education."
-E. White (Teaching and Assessing Writing)
In retrospect, I fail to remember consistent writing practices or writing assignments in English class (or otherwise) as a student in middle or secondary school. Luckily my love for and skill at creative and critical writing was encouraged by my parents and has remained at the heart of what I have chosen to pursue as a career. However, students whose writing is not only discouraged but is not treated fairly and properly in terms of evaluation have few options: to begin to regard writing as frivolous and unimportant; to remain underdeveloped in the areas of mechanics let alone harnessing of creativity and stylistic technique.
Evaluation, as does actual instruction of writing, remains underdeveloped as well. Tension lingers between teachers who either are intimidated by evaluation processes or reject too rigidly structured models and the necessary aspect of not only teaching students how to write but teaching writing as a process which, in the end, requires assessment. Ultimately what has been absent in the past and is lacking still is agreed upon (by teachers, administrators, and test practitioners) theory and practice of sound writing programs and evaluation measures. Two major components, whose relationships fuel the tension that inhibits a consensus, are the contrasts between holistic and analytic approaches to evaluation and hence writing as process or a mix of isolated skills. It is with interest that I research what has historically been found to work and not work with regards to practical and purposeful evaluation procedures that, in and of themselves, should reflect thoroughness but also serve as an integral component of good writing.
The Whole Picture versus Isolated Elements
Surely on opposite ends of the English education spectrum are the camps who advocate subjectivity and overall quality of writing and those who approach writing with analytic reductionism. Holistic proponents value writing in terms of its ultimate expression while reductionists believe that the whole is merely a sum of its parts (White, 18). Holistic assessment contradicts the notions of not only evaluating writing as a series of independent skills but also multiple choice testing as a means of determining writing ability (testing which requires the labeling of sentence components). "Holistic scoring, process research, and literary theory have developed along parallel paths during the last fifteen years, each stressing the rediscovery of the functioning human being behind texts and each rejecting more restricted ways of thinking about texts"(White, 18). Positive aspects of evaluating holistically are grounded in the belief that a piece of writing, like that of art, cannot be accurately understood nor appreciated should one sever individual parts from the entire unit. The process is guided by workshop oriented gatherings, comparative techniques, a loose system of points awarded, and record keeping on a consistent basis. Though holistic approaches emphasize subjectivity and are obviously aimed at monitoring student progress, they are regarded often as falling short of promising a thorough assessment of writing.
Analytic assessment combats the short comings of holistic approaches in that, by evaluating deductively, one can more precisely measure the problematic areas of the student writer. Analytic approaches such as proficiency testing claim to raise literacy standards and successfully evaluate mastery or weakness of composition skills necessary for the production of good writing. Proficiency testing principles suggest attention given to stages of writing development and advocate appropriateness to curricular requirements (White, 57). Norm-referencing testing, for instance, is designed to produce a normal distribution (bell-curve) determined by the ability and the aptitude and upbringing of the "normal" population (White, 64). Obviously the issue of test bias becomes involved when evaluating in this manner: the normal population often does not include minority and low socio-economic students and hence the ill regard reduces disadvantaged students to the low end of the curve. Though the concept of such measurements of multiple choice testing and limited writing sample testing are out-dated, they continue to be employed in secondary and post-secondary curriculums as they are efficient and convenient--for teachers. And although current methods are attempting to steer away from such restrictive evaluation, writing assessment has yet to fall under any particular model. Reasons for this phenomenon refer to the "stuff" that precedes evaluation and which directly affects it--writing as a process that is a construct which does not stop at drafting or menial sampling.
Writing and Evaluation as One Process
No matter the evaluation technique (though my beliefs tend to fall under a more holistic approach), the way in which a teacher evaluates must reflect and be designed to accommodate the actual process with which the writing was produced. If a teacher chooses to evaluate based on proficiency testing, the writing should be composed with emphasis placed upon the student's application of specific writing skills. Similarly, if a teacher chooses to assess holistically, the student should direct focus away from mastery of mechanics and work towards the conveying of his/her message coherently and effectively. Ideally, mechanical skill as well as thought organization should be considered equally, though it is quite difficult, as research suggests, to encompass all aspects of writing within one evaluation approach. However, what continues to be denied is that writing, in any form, is a process by which students should be encouraged to draft, revise, receive feedback, self-evaluate, and submit for formal evaluation.
"Throughout this book we have advocated a process approach to composition, one that teaches activities and skills rather than the structure or content of completed pieces of discourse. Consequently, we think evaluation of the writing process is important"(Judy and Judy, 148). In light of evaluating as a means of considering writing as procedural and carefully constructed, a technique such as portfolio assessment is one receiving wide acclaim and which places emphasis on the process of composition rather than the final piece or its isolated elements. Approaches to portfolio assessment refer to the teacher's constructing an "objectives checklist" to which the teacher turns in order to determine if the portfolio is demonstrative of the fundamental guidelines set forth in the list (Judy and Judy, 152). Portfolio assessment should serve as an evaluation of a compilation of writing samples, pre and post testing, surveys and questionnaires, and peer and self-evaluation. Further, formal and group conferences can achieve thorough portfolio assessments (Judy and Judy, 156). Such an evaluation approach falls under product evaluation which is one of three approaches to evaluating writing as a process/compilation of developed skills and activities (the others being input and process evaluation).
It has become apparent that, in order for the student to benefit from the acquisition of writing skill and technique as an intricate process, evaluation measures must correspond to the process by which the student has arrived at his/her writing creations. In my opinion, testing isolated composition skills is indicative of the dark ages, a time characterized by little knowledge of the process nature inherent in good writing development. However, I cannot dismiss grammatical and technical writing skills as unimportant and unworthy of testing--it is with use and practice of the skills that one makes his/her initial steps towards the construction of discourse. I believe it is the synthesis of holistic and proficiency testing coupled with process-based evaluation approaches that a teacher (if willing to exert the effort) can form accurate conclusions about a student's writing performances.