Harvard Educational Review
  1. An Overview of Writing Assessment

    Theory, Research and Practice

    By Willa Wolcott, with Sue Legg

    Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1998. 206 pp. $25.95 (paper)

    Assessment is often a volatile topic in current educational discourse, linked as it is to issues of accountability and standards. Willa Wolcott’s book, An Overview of Writing Assessment, takes a lucid and rational approach to this controversial topic. Her even-handed treatment is especially valuable, given the importance of writing ability to assessment across disciplines. As newer forms of assessment in all disciplines depend increasingly on students’ proficiency in discourse, both written and spoken, concerns about the evaluation of students’ writing ability have come to stand for our concerns about the evaluation of a broad spectrum of competencies. As Wolcott puts it, “because writing is intertwined with the learning process, the complexities of writing assessment serve as a microcosm of the assessment field in general” (p. 1). The kinds of skills that count toward the evaluation of students’ competence as writers — mastery of conventions, originality, depth of content — all have analogues in other disciplines, and so the deliberations about how such skills should be weighted in writing assessment may also strike a familiar chord for teachers in the content areas.

    Readers — especially those versed in the debate around writing assessment — will find a logical structure in the book, since it is organized around key topics. Some of these have to do with methods of gathering data for assessment — for example, “Direct Writing Assessment” and “Portfolio Assessment.” Other chapters discuss different approaches to scoring writing, such as “Holistic Scoring” and “Analytic Scoring.” The final chapters highlight especially contentious topics, “Reliability and Validity” and “Issues of Equity in Writing Assessment.” At the end of several of the chapters Wolcott adds “Tips for Teachers,” which offer advice on such issues as how to score essays holistically, how to use rubrics for primary trait scoring, and how to prepare students for direct writing assessments. In keeping with Wolcott’s support of large-scale assessments, these tips are focused on how teachers can prepare students to succeed at this type of writing. Some readers may find fault with the book for not questioning the value of large-scale assessments and not urging teachers to resist their impact on classroom instruction. However, given the proliferation across the United States of assessments that judge students’ writing ability by their performance on composing to a single writing prompt in a single sitting, along with the recent abandonment of more contextualized, interactive writing assessments in states like Arizona and California, Wolcott’s approach is undeniably a pragmatic one.

    With the growing trend toward mandating assessment for accountability purposes, writing teachers will find this book a useful resource for informing themselves about a wide range of assessment methods. Teachers who want to know more about the research behind the practice of writing assessment can refer to Wolcott’s extensive bibliography as a starting point. Theories of writing and of assessment make only a brief appearance in this practically oriented text, and where the author does invoke them it is always to the point. For example, Wolcott refers to reader-response theory to explain why teachers (and, by implication, all test designers) need to think carefully about how they phrase their writing assignments. She writes, “Just as reader-response theorists have shown that interpretations of any given written passage can vary widely, so may the demands of a given prompt be interpreted differently, depending on the role of the person reading it” (p. 33).

    At the same time that Wolcott acknowledges the powerful role that interpretive biases play in the design and scoring of assessments, she also attempts to account for any possible bias in her account of writing evaluation processes. Because the topic of writing assessment is so fraught with controversy, a book promising an “overview” of the topic may arouse the reader’s suspicion about the author’s bias. Is she a supporter of the large-scale, standardized tests that most state departments of education are now implementing? Or an advocate for locally designed and scored assessments? To her credit, Wolcott openly reveals her personal stance on assessment in a final chapter entitled “In My View.” Sanguine about the ramifications of state-mandated, high-stakes writing assessments, she argues that such evaluation systems have been the catalyst for positive change in many English/Language Arts programs. She also maintains that writing assessment need not be situated in a classroom context in order to be valid: “If one of the central purposes of writing is communication, and that is certainly the case given the growing emphasis on global communication, then it follows that writing can be assessed in more than just local contexts” (p. 180). While not all readers will agree with this perspective, such candor may help readers to evaluate the fairness of her treatment of various methods and approaches to writing assessment.

    Wolcott clearly intends this book to be useful to English/Language Arts teachers, as evidenced in the “Tips for Teachers” feature. However, policymakers and administrators may also find it useful as an introduction to the research on writing assessment and as a guide for understanding how they can make large-scale assessments fairer and more useful for teachers and students. Ultimately, the book’s greatest value lies in its potential to demystify for teachers some of the concepts and terms related to writing assessment. If this helps teachers to become more active participants in the design, implementation, and critique of assessment methods, then Wolcott’s book will have made a great contribution indeed.

    S.W.B.
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    Book Notes

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    Coming of Age in Academe
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    An Overview of Writing Assessment
    By Willa Wolcott, with Sue Legg

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    Common Purpose
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