My project this semester is to test the validity of a Rhetorical Analysis Diagnostic Exam (RADE) that my department has created. This test is meant to supplement or replace the English portion of Accuplacer as a placement exam for the writing courses at my institution. My WPD gave me the task of reviewing TYCA’s White Paper before revising RADE. In the next two weeks, I will be revising the test a colleague created. I will also be reformatting the test within Blackboard.
The TYCA White Paper is meant to guide decisions made about placement at two-year colleges given the current state of upheaval created by the loss of COMPASS. COMPASS was an inexpensive option for many schools. Its dissolvement gives two-year colleges “an opportunity and a challenge: how to replace an easy-to-use and relatively cheap placement process which has been shown to be severely flawed with a practical and affordable process that is supported by current research” (2).
In the “business as usual” section, the committee explains the flaws inherent in replacing one flawed high-stakes test with another. The assessments are problematic for many reasons, not least of which is weak validity. Additionally, the practice of using a high-stakes exam further divides institutional practices from the professional expertise of the faculty.
TYCA has long recognized that the most effective way to evaluate students’ writing ability is to assess their writing, but there are problems with implementing this type of placement in a two-year college. To be most effective, the writing sample should not be a single piece of writing and it should be “situated within the context of the institution” (7). It should also be assessed by faculty who teach the courses the students will be placed into. As this process is both time-consuming and costly, most two-year colleges will not be able to implement it.
The committee recommends basing placement on multiple measures rather than one high-stakes test or a stand-alone writing sample. Possible measures include: high school GPA or transcript, Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI), interview, writing sample, previous college coursework, and/or a portfolio (8-9). The committee supports use of Directed Self-Placement but also recognizes that it might not be feasible for many institutions. Other options are in-class diagnostic writing samples with the opportunity to move into credit-bearing courses or acceleration models that allow students to take a credit-bearing course alongside a Basic Writing course and progress to 101 on the merit of the credit-bearing course’s grade.
If a stand-alone test is going to be used, special attention must be made to ensure it is fair and non-discriminatory to students of differing backgrounds, age ranges, etc. Among the recommendations of the committee is that all reforms should “be grounded in disciplinary knowledge” and “be assessed and validated locally” (21).
The TYCA White Paper will serve as an invaluable resource as my colleagues and I continue to argue for use of RADE as an alternative to Accuplacer. Many of the reforms mentioned in the white paper are not possible for my institution, as the administration has already decided to use Accuplacer and will not pay for additional tests to be administered. Additionally, much of our enrollment comes from students who expect to register for classes the day they enroll in the college. For that reason, multiple measures (and DSP which relies on multiple measures) will not be possible without endangering enrollment procedures, something the college is understandably loathe to do. My personal take-away from the article is the importance of making sure our diagnostic test does not unfairly privilege any demographic groups over others.
TYCA Research Committee. “TYCA White Paper on Writing Placement Reform.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College. Pending, 09/2016.