Race and Writing Assessment

reviewed by Mary Louise Gomez - June 21, 2013

coverTitle: Race and Writing Assessment
Author(s): Asao B. Inoue & Mya Poe (eds.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433118165, Pages: 248, Year: 2012
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This collection of articles examines key questions surrounding the assessment of writing, including: how assessments variously are impacting students who are racially different from one another, how we might alter our assessment practices to insure that all students are evaluated in an equitable way, and to inquire into what kinds of information we might gather to inform our future, more equitable practices of assessment (p. 3).  It includes attention to five central concepts in assessment: identifying how race is an “absent present” in scholarship on writing assessment, what the technologies or contexts of evaluation are and who the persons who practice these are, how we might respond to differences of language and race, how we might use assessment data for placement of students in college courses, and the implications of assessment for college success and completion. Each chapter raises critical questions for readers’ consideration concerning who is assessed, how they are assessed, what tools are used to assess them, and what the outcomes of such evaluation are. An important distinction all authors make is the need to take into account both the overall goals of equitable assessments and outcomes as well as local contexts for evaluation—whether those be entrance to college, placement in liberal arts course sequences, or how ungraded portfolios grounded in measures of quantity rather than strict guidelines of quality affect students belonging to various racial categories.  

In the first section concerning race as an “absent present” in writing assessment scholarship, chapters by Chris Anson (North Carolina State University) and Diane Kelly-Riley (Washington State University) explore what groups have been left out of conversations on writing assessments and how these absences have resulted in particular outcomes for students of color. Anson makes the important point that without attention to race and racial formation, we are left with conversations that draw attention to deficiencies in writers—slotting them into categories such as “basic writers,” English language learners, and unskilled “others.”  Anson points out that we need to focus not on students as generalizable categories of “others,” but as individuals who bring their lived experiences and specific strengths, skills, and needs to our courses.

Kelly-Riley argues for shared evaluation methods that she describes as “practices in which local context drives the articulation of assessment standards” (p. 29), often altering evaluation from a barrier-devised system to one of diagnostic dimensions.  Kelly-Riley states that paramount to the success of shared evaluation is the unspoken criteria faculty members deploy in their assessments. Individuals must be self-critical when reading and critiquing students’ writing, and writing assessment programs require vigilance in continuing to help faculty evaluate both the stated criteria for evaluation and those dimensions that they may dysconsciously (King, 1991) employ.

There are three chapters in section two, one authored by Anne Herrington (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) and Sarah Stanley (University of Alaska-Fairbanks), another by Valerie Balester (Texas A & M University), and a third by Asao B. Inoue (California State University-Fresno). These 3 papers examine different technologies of grading—one that is aimed at understanding the evaluations of computerized assessment programs at the college level, another that is aimed at analyzing writing assessment rubrics and their outcomes, and a third that examines the technology of contract grading, which may, at first glance, appear neutral on evaluating varying racial groups’ writing.

In the first paper of the section, Herrington and Stanley critique the automated program Criterion aimed at K-12 as well as higher education and used by the Educational Testing Service for the assessment of student writing. The authors show how the program reinscribes a very homogenous view of writing that many White and middle class English speakers already hold.  Such a technology only serves to marginalize those students who are English language learners, as well as those who are speakers of various dialects of English not necessarily privileged by their teachers. Further, program use may make those who employ it feel that they have applied an impartial evaluation of students’ work when in actuality, they only may have mirrored their own existing biases.

Balester’s chapter examines how writing rubrics may seem neutral technologies, but also may hold speakers of a variety of dialects of English to standards outside their familiarity and use; these also fail to acknowledge the strengths that such dialects might bring to students’ expressions. Such technologies may only serve to further standardize what is expected of students, marginalizing the many at the expense of the privileged few. Such standardization of language can point teachers further towards examining students’ writing for errors rather than strength of ideas, experience, or argument. Balester examined 13 publicly available rubrics designed for use from grade 11 through higher education. She found that these reified existing attitudes regarding what is seen as correct while not making a third space for assisting students in acquiring Edited American English as well as locating the strengths of their existing registers.

Inoue reviews research on grading contract use and cites three findings from the literature: contracts value writing effectiveness as an outcome of the quantity of work produced, the quality of writing produced in a class, and students’ reactions to their use. He then details the Fresno writing contract and experiences with its use that highlight its negotiated nature between students and teacher, the grading of all writing as acceptable or unacceptable (that it meets stated criteria), and the building of students’ intrinsic motivation to complete good work. Inoue studied how students from different racial groups (Asian Pacific Islanders who were mostly Hmong, African Americans, and Whites) thought about the use of grading contracts via exit surveys from two required courses, portfolio ratings, and the distribution of grades. These showed that writing contracts at Fresno were more effective for students of color, those whose parents have lower levels of education, and speak languages other than English at home—students who may see grading as harmful and destructive to their learning. Inoue concludes that: “…any grading technology may very well affect racial formations differently” (p. 93).

A fourth section of the text takes up the theme of language diversity and race in three chapters. In the first paper, Zandra L. Jordan (Spelman College) focuses on the 1974 resolution of the Conference on College Composition and Communication on Students’ Right to Their Own Language and its implementation at historically Black Spelman. She draws on her successful scaffolding of one student’s academic writing to show both how teachers can preserve students’ linguistic and cultural heritage and induct them into academic writing with their dignity intact. This particularly is important for speakers of African American English (AAE) as it so often is disparaged and viewed as demonstrating speakers’ ignorance. Jordan makes a powerful argument for both respecting students’ linguistic and cultural resources, and offering them the assistance they need to write with academic competence.

In their chapter, Judy Fowler (Fayetteville State University of North Carolina or FSU) and Robert Ochsner (University of California-Merced) discuss both a partnership between the writing programs at their respective universities and a study of how students’ home languages affected their course grades. Specifically, they wished to know if instructors’ unfamiliarity with students’ home languages might negatively affect students’ grades. They hypothesized that instructors at Merced, a primarily Spanish-serving institution, would not penalize linguistic markers of Spanish and also that instructors at the historically Black Fayetteville State likewise would not penalize linguistic markers of African American English. While at FSU, this hypothesis was validated; scorers of writing at Merced neither penalized Spanish or African American English linguistic markers at greater rates.  The authors then untangle a complex set of social, political, and cultural factors that may have influenced the results of their study. This chapter offers powerful issues for readers’ consideration as it shows just how complicated linguistic diversity, race and writing evaluation is, and how important it is to attend to such dimensions of students’ work.

Nicholas Behm (Elmhurst College) and Keith D. Miller (Arizona State University) craft a theoretical framework for what they call a fourth wave of writing assessment that privileges the role that race plays in the evaluation of writing. They draw on Bonilla-Silva’s four frameworks of White racial dominance to theorize how we might alter what students read and write about.  An especially intriguing idea they offer is engaging students with reading and writing about non-fiction essays and speeches by people of color; they particularly favor the writing of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer as well as other activists.  

The final two sections of the text are titled Composition Placement Assessment and Beyond Placement Assessment. There are 2 chapters in each of these sections; they address place (assessments conducted in two different U. S. art schools, and an international assessment conducted in France to enable study abroad). In the first paper in this set by Rachel Lewis Ketai (El Camino College), she asks: “…does [self placement] sidestep racialization simply by shifting the placement decision from adminstrators to students?” (p. 144).  Lewis Ketai argues for a more contextualized approach to self-assessment, including information offered to students about their self diagnoses of the courses in which to enroll and what genres of reading and writing they have done to date.  Otherwise, she states that their self-assessments will rely, as do administrator decisions, on notions of individual work ethic, family education and social class, and/or racialized ideas about who can and does do well in writing courses.

In the second chapter of this set, Anthony Lioi (Juillard School, NYC) and Nicole M. Merola (Rhode Island School of Design, Providence) argue that the arts school context provides ways to see the effects of local and specific settings on writing assessment practices.  The same problems evidenced at other colleges and universities with regard for students of particular racial, linguistic, country of origin, and socioeconomic status groups are present at these two schools. Further, the challenges of writing assessment in both places are exacerbated by an absence of large numbers of English department faculty to administer and teach “remedial” writing courses.  Lioi and Merola recommend that faculty in all higher educational institutions carefully review their programs and technologies of assessment for how they affect students—how they make them feel, what they require they do that differentiates them from their peers, and if their writing can be viewed as improving as a result.

Kathleen Blake Yancey (Florida State University) argues that the Oregon State University practice of asking students to submit what is called an “insight resume” encourages students who generally are marginalized in college admissions to articulate who they are and what they can do, what they have done, and what they seek to do in the future. By counting 6 dimensions of their learning—their leadership/group contributions, their knowledge in a field/diversity, their dealing with adversity, community service, handling of systemic challenges, and articulation of one’s goals and commitments (p. 176-177), students can show their strengths and skills to college admissions officers.  Non-traditional college students—those from low-income families, students of color, and first–time college attenders all benefit from the opportunity to name their strengths and skills in these relatively brief (100 words each) essays. This is one means of taking race and other salient factors into account in written assessments for college admissions.

The final chapter of the text, written by Elizabeth Bautier (l’Universite de Paris) and Christine Donahue (Dartmouth College), examines linguistic and socioeconomic dimensions of French students’ lives for assessment biases as they are evaluated for admission to international programs of study. The authors view how students draw on their linguistic and social class resources to answer questions on the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA writing assessment. They conclude that students from low socioeconomic status families, immigrant students, and those who speak a language other than French at home are penalized on the evaluation for their answers that draw more on their literal personal experiences rather than integrating these into a critically reflective stance on a topic. Further, these students failed to draw on the resources of written materials provided to respond to test questions, as they did not understand they were required to do so. This is yet another example of how students’ identities can be used to capitalize on or diminish their future schooling and other opportunities via how their writing is evaluated. Clearly, this phenomenon is not limited to the United States.

This is an important text—it examines many facets of writing assessment and decries the absence of attention to race in all of them.  Perhaps Kathleen Blake Yancey says it best near the close of the text when she writes: “…assessment has never produced outcomes innocently; it is itself a construct; it produces outcomes that are ideological even when it pretends otherwise; and it too can be assessed” (p. 184).  Bravo to examining our practices and their underpinnings to understand how these instantiate racist practices past and present. My only wish is that the authors and editors had more promising practices of writing assessment to encourage students marginalized by their race, language background, and socioeconomic status.



King, J. (1991) Dysconscious racism: Ideology, identity, and the miseducation of teachers. The Journal of Negro Education 60(2), 133-146

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 21, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17159, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:03:49 AM

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