C.07: Assessment’s Historical Dismissal of Writer and Reader Experience

Reviewed by Brian J. Stone, Huston-Tillotson University, Austin, TX (bjstone@htu.edu)

Chair: Christiane Donohue, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH

Speakers: Chris Gallagher, Northeastern University, Evanston, IL, “The Dismissal of Experience in Competency-Based Education and Assessment”

Richard Haswell, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, “The Dismissal of Experience in Holistic Scoring.”

Maja Wilson, University of Maine, Orono, ME, “The Dismissal and Recovery of Experience in Writing Assessment” (did not present)

As part of the History cluster, this panel elucidated an essential aspect of our discipline’s history, establishing historiographical ethos through what Foucault described on several occasions regarding his own work, as a history of the present. This is precisely the point Chris Gallagher left us with at the end of his presentation, forecasting the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) 2016 theme of “Taking Action.” The panelists brought together for us a detailed and historical view of the exclusion of experience in writing assessment, a discussion both timely and essential in our present state of affairs. 

Richard Haswell, in his familiar rhetorical style (which on this occasion did include throwing pens in lieu of fulfilling a request for the use of visual aids), confronted the ironic phenomenon of the dismissal of experience in holistic scoring. Haswell argued that the shaping of human response in holistic scoring (through what we commonly call grade-norming and discuss in terms of inter-rater reliability), over time, slowly removed the human, interpersonal element from essay scoring. Therefore, ironically, while far preferred to the analytic approach, what was and continues to be championed as a holistic assessment of student writing is guilty of dismissing student experience. Referring to Edward M. White’s (2009) work, Haswell noted that holistic assessment moved writing assessment forward in the spirit of process research and post-structuralism. This form of assessment viewed student writing as a whole, eschewing the analytic method, which breaks student writing down into quantifiable parts. While it is true that holistic assessment provides an approach far preferred to analytic reductionism, Haswell’s historical account of nearly 40 years of holistic assessment demonstrates our failure to take into account student experience relevant to the testing. As Haswell argued, never once does a publication on the subject inquire into how students experience the assessment or its scoring.  Even White, a champion for holistic scoring, warned us of its limitations. Importantly, White (2009) said, “No matter how valuable we may find some kinds of testing, if they cost too much they will not be used” (p. 21).

Indeed, it is at this intersection of assessment and economic considerations that Chris Gallagher’s presentation on the history of competency-based education (CBE) was situated. CBE emerged in the 1970s in the form of distance learning programs. As Gallagher explained, this emergence was short-lived for a number of factors. However, many of the same forces that gave birth to CBE have been reborn following the technological revolution and the Great Recession. Implemented as a top-down educational movement in many institutions, CBE has seen a rebirth in the age of online education and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, lecture halls and teachers are seen as unnecessary overhead as writing skills become a neatly packaged commodity, divorced from curricula, to be sold as part of a workforce preparation program, rather than an essential and experiential aspect of higher education. 

Listening to Gallagher’s historical analysis of CBE and its foundational concepts that have infiltrated much composition curricula, especially outcomes assessment, set the stage for CCCC 2016 and did so in a most genuine and authentic manner. This was no mere sophistry; the call to action is real. No more than a month before the conference, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, after cutting $300 million from the University of Wisconsin budget, attempted to change the wording of the university’s mission:

Walker's proposed revisions to the Wisconsin Idea in the Wisconsin Constitution. The original language and an explanation of the changes are below.  

The original language of Section 1111 read:

The mission of the system is to develop human resources to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to education people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.

The proposed changes added “to meet the state’s workforce needs” to the basic mission of the university system, removed language about extending knowledge beyond the campuses, and cut the last two sentences (Kertscher, 2015).

The public outcry against these changes was great enough that they were never realized, and Walker’s PR team chalked it all up to an error (Kertscher, 2015). However, this example sheds light upon the extent of the current threat to higher education. While Gallagher spoke, the mood in the room reflected these concerns and this imminent reality. As higher education turns away from the core values of the humanities in order to balance budgets and cut wasteful spending, we are truly left looking to a history of the present, inheritors of a precarious structure built on capitalist values, but one in which we composition teachers act as instrumental agents. As all of the speakers on this panel suggested, student experience should not be neglected in favor of an assessment model, which measures outcomes—especially outcomes intent on representing workforce preparation instead of experiential learning.

While we can look to history to understand the ways in which CBE has influenced and continues to influence administrative perceptions and assessment practices, we must also attend to the ironies of our favored practices, including holistic assessment, as Haswell did. Gallagher’s call to “design educational experiences and assessments” based upon “the kinds of engaged teaching, learning, writing, and reading that we value” echoed John Dewey (1938) when he said 

The lesson for progressive education is that it requires in an urgent degree, a degree more pressing than was incumbent upon former innovators, a philosophy of education based upon a philosophy of experience. I remarked incidentally that the philosophy in question is, to paraphrase the saying of Lincoln about democracy, one of education of, by, and for experience. (p. 29)

A common theme at the 2015 CCCC was student experience: linguistic, classroom-based, socioeconomic, cultural, and so on. This theme, along with the persistent presence of code-meshing pedagogies, translingualism, global Englishes, and cultural rhetorics (to name just a few signs of our continued self-reflection), reveals that we have in large part embraced experience in composition studies. The question remains, lingering with Gallagher’s call to action: Can we embrace assessment and experience in education? Can we realize assessment of, by, and for experience?


Dewey, John. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Touchstone. 

Kertscher, Tom. (2015, February 6). Despite deliberate actions, Scott Walker calls change to University mission a “drafting error”. Politifact. Retrieved May 15, 2015, from http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2015/feb/06/scott-walker/despite-deliberate-actions-scott-walker-calls-chan/

White, Edward M. (2009). Holisticism. In Brian Huot & Peggy O’Neill (Eds.), Assessing writing: A critical sourcebook (pp. 19–28). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Created by SamanthaClarkson. Last Modification: Thursday December 31, 2015 20:48:35 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.