Although this isn’t directly related to BW as a field, I now notice a very common thread amongst our readings for this course and those on our comprehensive exams. It’s getting harder and harder to skate through these readings without having a proper understanding of the historical and social context of the 1800s through to today. Sure, you can go farther back in time, but the last 3 centuries up to today (it seems) are the most relevant for understanding recent issues in the field of composition and basic writing. The last three comps readings I did (Aparacio, Ahmad, and Bhabha) were wrought with references to 1865, the 1960s as a whole, and so on. I am the first to admit my historical illiteracy -- I mean, I have a sense of what occurred, but the who, how, and why are where the details begin to blur. Certainly the writers of these works can reasonably expect one to be relatively familiar with the US’s historical and social background, but I appreciated and found it invaluable that both Shor and Otte and Mlynarczyk go into so much detail about how composition and basic writing related to the past. They weave in the history of comp and BW with the larger historical and social context of the US and pain a much clearer picture of comp and BW in the US.
Otte and Mlynarczyk touch on the fact, very briefly, that “students who somehow escaped being tracked into BW classes actually fared fairly well in the mainstream”, which is a point not lost on Shor (Otte and Mlynarczyk 31). I really loved how Shor was so passionate about the many woes and “complaints” about composition, and by extension, basic writing. At one point, he asks, “How did this enterprise pile up so much dirty laundry?” (37). But I digress: Shor is highly suspect about the evidence used to support the necessity of remediation altogether (students being placed or tracked into remedial courses), and cites the study performed by Peter Dow Adams that really just rocked my world. Adams found that “students who evaded BW and succeeded in regular comp at a rate equal to or higher than those who took the remedial course” (Shor 45). On the one hand, I’m shocked—isn’t testing supposed to ‘properly’ identify the students that ‘need’ these courses? And, if placed in such courses, wouldn’t that imply that that student wouldn’t be able to pass a regular comp course?! Apparantly, neither of these are true.
So now we come to the issue of tracking and placement. This seems as good a place as any to transition to this subject. Shor really gets vocal about the non-writing, short answer tests that are so commonly used to assess writing, like the SATs?, ACTs?, etc. (46). Shor, with his highly opinionated and passionate tone, calls for the removal of these “bogus tests” and calls for more field projects, social contexts, and Elbows portfolio assessment (46-47). Carter really underscores the problem with standardized testing like the TAAS, TAKS, and whatever other names this assessment went by over the years. What Carter did that Shor didn’t was discuss and problematize just how much standardized testing not only constrains the work of the student but of the teacher as well, likening the objectives of the TAAS to metaphorical shackles (4). Otte and Mlynarczyk further liken writing assessment and standardized testing to a managerial task (quoted in full because the italicized part is especially important to me): Richard Lloyd-Jones, in his 1986 essay “Tests of Writing Ability,” makes it easy to see why it’s hard to find much intellectual excitement in such assessment: ‘The assessment of writing abilities is essentially a managerial task. It represents an effort to record quantitatively the quality of the writing or writing skills of a group of people so that administrators can make policies about educational programs. Tests are given and scores are assigned to individual performances of people as parts of large groups. As a rule the scores then are used in the aggregate.’ (155) The caution with which Lloyd-Jones generalizes is telling: writing assessments and the uses they were put to were eventually found to be al- most as various as the institutions that deployed them. Little could be counted on beyond the tendency of such assessments to mark under- prepared or weak students for BW placement. (Otte and Mlynarczyk 20).
In no situation does standardized testing seem to benefit the educational system as whole, society as a whole, teachers, or students. Why, then, does it still exist? … food for thought. It reminds me of the whole English only debate, hegemony, and paradigms of power. Shor talked a lot about how the group in power (typically older, white, affluent males) have created such a system (remember Harvard and the invention of a literacy crisis?!) to reaffirm their power and status of being up above. He gets a little conspiracy-theorist on us, but really, is what he arguing really so far fetched? BW do seem very much like hinderances. And could you imagine if more studies were done on students who escaped BW placement were done (and if the results were that they fared just fine)? What a controversy that would start. Then what would our elite too? Probably turn to Harvard to come up with some new cockamamie system to reinstate the power to the elite… I’m quite sure of it.