A Review of Bad Ideas About Writing, Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe

Table of Contents About Us References

Chapter 6: Bad Ideas About Assessing Writing. Review by Ran Meyer

Primarily directed to writing educators, Chapter 6, “Bad Ideas about Assessing Writing,” contains eight brief essays by scholars whose views on the assessment of student writing are in line with such foundational works as Brian Huot’s 2002 (Re) Articulating Writing Assessment for Teaching and Learning and Bob Broad’s 2003 What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing. Indeed, Mitchell James’s leading piece listed both of these texts for further reading. Later essays vicariously link to Huot and Broad when they hearkened back to James time and again in endorsing the primary assumption undergirding this chapter: If we are to teach students to write successfully, then we must teach them to assess their own writing because one cannot revise unless one can assess.

If we are to teach students to write successfully, then we must teach them to assess their own writing because one cannot revise unless one can assess.

These essays, thus, challenged readers to reconsider a number of entrenched assessment practices and offered a few tantalizing alternatives; tantalizing, that is, to those who applaud this quotation from the IRA/NCTE’s 2010 Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing: “The central premise of the standards is that quality assessment is a process of inquiry. It requires gathering information and setting conditions so that the classroom, the school, and the community become centers of inquiry where students, teachers, and other members of the school community examine, individually and collaboratively, their learning and ways to improve their practice” (p. 10). With its focus on assessment, this chapter seems to appeal more to educators than non-educators; however, as the above quotation makes clear, assessment should involve and interest students and the community as well as educators.

In the leading section, “Grading Has Always Made Writing Better,” James convincingly asserted that assigning grades has done little to nothing to improve student writing. Instead, he advocated a familiar thesis—give “formative” followed by “summative” feedback—terms that James described as follows:

Formative evaluation—done typically by responding to in-process student writing several times during the semester—replaces the punishment or praise of student learning, typically demonstrated through grading a final product or test, with a process that encourages communication as a part of learning. . . . Summative evaluation follows extensive formative evaluation. Summative evaluation is superior to grading because it assesses a student’s ability to meet a priori criteria without the use of a letter grade. (p. 256-257)

Ultimately, as James conceded, writing teachers must assign grades, and in this sense, James’s piece conjured a sense of futility. His point is well taken in that, while teaching jobs may well depend on the assignment of grades, teacher involvement throughout the writing process with formative comments is one of the more effective methods to improve student learning. James’s section, like those by Leahy, Harris, and Friend that follow, is most useful to the classroom practitioner, especially in the arena of postsecondary writing, where the dilution of rubrics and grading in writing assessment is perhaps the most feasible.

Two companion pieces useful to those considering the merits of rubrics follow: Anne Leahy’s “Rubrics Save Time and Make Grading Criteria Visible” and Sands’s “Rubrics Oversimplify the Writing Process.” Seemingly inconsistent at first blush, these two pieces are unified in their belief that formative response to student writing assists students in thinking and writing. The worth of these two essays lies in reading between the lines to see how writing educators might build upon rubrics in the assessment of writing. The point for both authors appeared to reside in how teachers can lead students to self-reflection and metacognition. Sands insisted rubrics can build confidence with explicit instruction, and for her the key is transparency about their limitations: Writing teachers need to emphasize rubrics are only a starting point and omit much. How such transparency and confidence can lead to metacognition, however, remains an opportunity for further exploration.

The next two essays will interest those who believe students should write more than their teachers in a writing course. On the vague side, however, is Muriel Harris’s “When Responding to Student Writing, More Is Better.” Readers are left to wonder: How much is too much? When do marginal notes become “excessive”? Is one summary paragraph at the end of the paper counterproductive? Such scholars as John Bean and Edward White have long argued that teachers need to choose their battles and hierarchies. Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (2011)—listed as further reading—especially gave much practical advice on the writing teacher as coach, whose response includes selective marginal comments and a final comment that discusses a few strengths and some direction for improvement.

Similarly, Christopher Friend next argued in “Student Writing Must Be Graded by the Teacher” that students can learn to assess their own writing and the writing of others without teacher grading. The merit of this piece for some writing teachers may be how to fulfill an obligation to assign grades while actually grading a student’s ability to assess writing, rather than just assessing a written product. The solution appears to be a focus on grading students on the quality of their peer-review feedback and collaboration, but there is much more to be learned on this critical point, and the lack of more direction, for some readers, may be frustrating.

The last three pieces—Chris Anson and Les Perelman’s “Machines Can Evaluate Writing Well,” Stephanie Vie’s “Plagiarism Detection Services Are Money Well Spent” and Kristen di Gennaro’s “SAT Scores Are Useful for Placing Students in Writing Courses”—all took educators to task for the use of technology to oversimplify and devalue student writing and are especially critical of positivist assumptions about writing assessment. Writing is a complex endeavor and activity, not to mention a social one, Anson and Perelman explain—a complexity that escapes both machines and human beings trained to be (purportedly) objective evaluative “machines.” Nothing is improved by testing, they argue, and perhaps one could add “writing least of all.”

The most controversial section in the chapter was Vie’s, which suggested plagiarism should neither be policed nor prosecuted. Everything is a “remix,” we are told; everyone “borrows” in the process of creativity. Still, the word “plagiarism” flows from the Latin word for “kidnapper,” an etymology we should perhaps not lightly dismiss. Whether writing teachers should thwart such nappings is debatable. Whether the teaching of writing should include discussion and practice in researching so as to find dependable and up-to-date materials that may challenge even deeply held beliefs (no matter how much one would personally like to believe them) and using sources responsibly so that students make the sources “their own,” to borrow Edward White and Cassie Wright’s (2016) phrase (p. 183), seems neglected in Vie’s piece. While Vie did not include it, White and Wright’s Assigning, Responding, Evaluating: A Writing Teacher’s Guide could be invaluable further reading with its detailed discussion of methods to encourage responsible use of sources.