The WPA Position Statement on Assessment
NOTE: This statement is a draft. While it is available for you to use, we also encourage and welcome your comments on this in-process document. If you have comments or suggestions for revisions, click on the "comment" link below. In your comments, please indicate the paragraph to which your comment applies (e.g., para 1, para 2, para 3, etc.) and include any changes or suggestions you would like to see included. We welcome comments and suggestions until November 2007. If you use this document, we also would welcome stories about how it was used and/or received.
Linked to this statement, below, are also useful background resources on current discussions about accountability, assessment, and accreditation.
College writing classes prepare students to become successful 21st century communicators who will be prepared to communicate with a variety of audiences using a variety of media, from traditional pen-and-paper composition to electronic communication.
21st century literacy educators understand that, to be prepared for this new age, communicators must be able to analyze and address the expectations of these audiences and employ reading, writing, and thinking strategies to meet those expectations. Those strategies are complicated and involve integrating multiple cognitive activities, like the processing and production of written texts, with analyses of the contexts and audiences for whom communication is being produced. Good communication in the 21st century is context-specific: what represents good writing in one context, like writing for an on-line political blog, might not be seen as good writing in another, like creating a pen-and-paper lab analysis in a biology class.
Developing successful communication practices takes time and experience. Research has long demonstrated that exposure to the conventions of communication (e.g., writing and reading) in different contexts significantly affects an individual’s ability to reproduce those conventions in her or his own work. Thus, communicators who have grown up in literacy-rich homes where reading and writing are regular features typically have an easier time engaging in communicative processes in educational settings.
Post-secondary institutions, especially, acknowledge these differences. Some are highly selective, attracting students who have extensive experience with communicative practices before entering college, while others focus on working with students who bring less experience with these practices. While all institutions establish rigorous learning goals for their students, those goals and the pedagogies by which they are achieved take into account students’ previous experiences as communicators. Additionally, any assessment of these students must take into account students’ experiences and the specific context in which their learning takes place.
Assessments of the degree to which communicators are meeting these demands must reflect these long-established facts. That is, assessments must proceed from existing research indicating that:
- The demands of successful 21st century communication involve more than working with pen-and-paper writing and reading. Successful 21st century communicators engage in a range of practices, from production of traditional papers to the creation of multi-media texts. Thus, any assessment of successful communication must examine communicators’ abilities to engage in analysis of the expectations of production of multiple kinds of texts, including consideration of what texts are appropriate for what audiences.
- Qualities associated with successful communication (writing, reading, and other acts of textual production) are context-specific. Thus, any assessment of successful communication must proceed from actual evidence of communicators’ work. Included in that work must be the communicators’ own analysis of their understanding of the specific context, purpose, and audience for that work.
- Production of successful communication (writing, reading, and other acts of textual production) involves both cognitive processes and cultural analysis (of audience, purpose, and context). These production processes must acknowledge and build upon communicators’ previous experiences with the conventions of communication in particular contexts. Thus, any assessment of successful communication must take into consideration the interplay among cognitive and cultural processes and must attest to the abilities of communicators in specific contexts.
- Finally, both the processes used for and products emanating from these assessments must be directed back to the programs and contexts charged with developing successful 21st century communicators. Thus, educators working with these programs must be directly involved with the creation of appropriate assessments, and the assessment results should be used to “close the loop” when they take appropriate actions based on those results.
In order to be useful for educators responsible for advancing student development, measures used to assess the success of these processes and the communication produced as a result of their employment must reflect their full complexity. Additionally, because good communication is context specific, comparing textual production across dissimilar contexts provides neither valid nor reliable assessment data. Instead, assessments must be developed that take into account the complex work of 21st century communication and enable educators to improve that work through their teaching.