Date of Award

May 2014

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

English

First Advisor

Charles I. Schuster

Committee Members

Mary Louise Buley-Meissner, Patricia Mayes, Anthony Ciccone, Norbert Elliot

Keywords

Composition Pedagogy, Placement into Composition, Writing Assessment, Writing Program Administration, Writing Studies Research

Abstract

Writing assessment has continued to gain prominence within educational settings and public discourse in the United States throughout the past century. Placement into First-Year Writing, however, is consistently ignored in the scholarly literature, despite its central role within writing assessment and the university. This dissertation argues that placement is central to all students' university experiences, and deserves more attention. Placement is at the heart of composition: it affects each student, each instructor, each writing program, each institution. It significantly influences retention, instruction, budget, and even national reputation, since student retention and graduation rates are key factors in national rankings such as those published by U.S. News and World Report. Placement communicates what the composition program and university value about writing to students, instructors, academic departments, and the public. It influences what high school and college English departments teach and how teachers, curricula, and programs are administered. It offers incoming students their first experiences with the university's expectations for writing, and has irrevocable consequences beyond a student's first semester. Yet placement is often invisible and ignored on campuses and in the scholarly literature, which this dissertation aims to change.

Research from educational measurement and academic communities over the past century has been positioned as an argument, not a discussion. Consequently, placement methods developed from each community have adhered to distinct criteria: efficiency and reliability from psychometricians, pedagogy and validity from academics. This dissertation examines those criteria within four prominent methods of placing students into their required First-Year Writing courses: multiple-choice tests of grammar and usage, holistically scored essays, Directed Self-Placement, and Automated Essay Evaluation. Because writing assessment is best when it is attuned to local curricula and student bodies, I do not argue for one "gold standard" placement practice. Rather, I argue for a dialogic perspective of placement that considers placement in relation to the university - its students, its location, its mission, its writing values. I present suggestions for how such a perspective might be used to influence equitable practices in the twenty-first century, and to situate placement as a viable site of inquiry.

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