The Writing Exam as Index of Policy, Curriculum, and Assessment: An Academic Literacies Perspective on High Stakes Testing in an American University
Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research
Academic literacy is a policy goal universities implement through curricular and assessment decisions that are generally discipline-based. Disciplinary genres are traditionally seen as relatively fixed entities, easily evaluated by practiced members of the field and able to be emulated and mastered by students with training. This study examines the interplay of policy, curriculum, and assessment as they concern academic literacy in higher education and explore how writing assessment is employed in the maintenance and verification of academic literacy. The research took place at a small university known primarily for its pharmacy school and preparation for careers in the sciences and health sciences. The university is unusual in that it requires that students pass a writing proficiency exam in order to graduate. This research employed ethnographic methods and textual analysis to discover the interaction between university writing policy and its real-world effects. Data was collected in the form of fieldnotes of my observations of the Writing Center and interactions on-campus; ethnographic interviews with faculty, administrators, and students; course syllabi and other site documents; and exam bluebooks. This study looks at the use of the five-paragraph theme as an assessment tool, an academic genre rarely seen outside of composition classrooms and essay exams. It also evaluates the social and institutional function of a high-stakes testing policy, and how the policy serves to balance curricular ideologies with other constraints. It shows how universities, increasingly working under a business model, make curricular and assessment decisions in the interest of balancing hiring costs, academic ideology, and so on, in an iterative process. The results of this research have implications for evaluating writing policy in higher education institutions, and the use and structure of writing assessment in other arenas as well.