"Testing, College-Level English, and the Adjunct Faculty"
College-level English comprises a set of analytic skills described repeatedly in the
scoring guides of national and state-wide tests. Because students are so keenly aware of
the tests (and their consequences), they are already motivated to develop their analytical
writing proficiency. Faculty need to put aside their preference for literary writing in order
to concentrate on developing their students’ skill in rhetorical analysis.
In California, my workplace, there are two significant borders under constant patrol: the
physical border with Spanish-speaking Mexico and the intellectual gateway to English
1A, the college-level English course. Testing in each of the state’s divisions of higher
education is the principal method used to sort students into or out of English 1A. The
number of these is rapidly multiplying.
Even before choosing a college, students in the state’s high schools now take a
proficiency exam, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) with components
both in reading and in writing. In addition, high school students who wish to challenge
the college-level requirements in composition and literature can enroll in Advanced
Placement courses leading to the national AP English Language and Composition exam
Later, at the University of California (UC), students take the Subject A exam. California
State University (CSU) students take the English Placement Test (EPT). Community
College entrants take placement tests developed and normed on the individual campuses.
But that’s not all. After two years, the CSUs ask that students take a further test of written
English skill in their junior year, called the Graduate Writing Assessment Requirement
(GWAR). The results may be used to grant or deny eligibility for an undergraduate
degree. For admission to graduate school, students face tests which include assessments
of writing ability in exams such as the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), and the GMAT,
the Graduate Management Admissions Test.
For each of these tests, there is a client, such as the College Board or the State of
California. While critics take aim at the testing companies themselves, it should be
remembered that tests are produced for specific agencies to meet specific needs.
The need for a test arises when grades alone do not provide information about a student’s
ability. Grade inflation disguises differences between students. Differing standards from
school to school, owing to different philosophies within departments, are not transparent
in student records. Income, family background and other socio-economic factors can
produce different populations of students, vastly different in exposure and training but
ostensibly equal in GPAs.
If teachers were self-regulating and if they aspired to arbitrate the state and national
standards for each grade level themselves, any single grade might have real meaning. If
students stayed put, attending college in the same place they attended grades K-12, the
differences within a grade point might not be so large. But students in California are not a
homogenous group. At no time in the history of the state has a majority of citizens been
native-born. The writing careers of William Saroyan, Maxine Hong Kingston, John
Steinbeck and Bret Harte all testify to the stories of migration that make up California
history. During the 1980s and 1990s, whenever another country made the headlines—
Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Philippines—new faces would appear in California
classrooms. I have taught English 1A to eight nationalities at once, not one of whom
knew the difference between Goldilocks and Rumplestiltskin, although they knew the
difference between Laos and Cambodia, and could be heard arguing over whether
“Persian” was the name of a language or merely a body of water off the coast of Iran.
Opposition to testing comes from many quarters, some more legitimate than others.
Writers such as Peter Sacks, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America‟s Testing
Culture and What We Can Do To Change It (1999), emphasize the money to made by
testing companies after Americans are convinced that testing is necessary. More
disturbing to me is the body of complaints that come from teachers themselves.
As a tenured member of the Language Arts departments of two community colleges, I
often heard the phrase “teach to the test” used to disparage efforts to bring knowledge
about tests into the classroom. Faculty wanted to believe that their classrooms were
personally constructed and supervised incubators of a unique sort. Each classroom was to
reflect the individual instructor’s view of how proficiency in writing might be achieved.
Some faculty attended the Bay Area Writing Project’s summer institutes, and others
attended conferences sponsored by professional organizations such as NCTE and CATE.
The majority of faculty did no further training, nor was it required for tenure. Over the
years, the supplementary reading for each section of English 1A took on the flavor of the
interests of the particular instructor. One class read Huckleberry Finn. Another was
reading Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace. The part-timers moonlighting from their high
school jobs assigned Lord of the Rings. Adjunct ABDs recently out of graduate school
had the students reading Beloved and Things Fall Apart.
In California, the content of English 1A is prescribed by agreements between the colleges
and the four-year institutions accepting transfer students. These documents, called
articulation agreements, cover content and performance standards for the courses: so
many words of evaluated writing (to avoid counting journal writing), so many pages of
reading, including a full-length book (to avoid only newspaper-length articles), and
practice in broad areas, such as critical thinking and research techniques.
At the time I was teaching, enforcement of these standards by the Academic Senate or the
college administration was nearly non-existent. There was no requirement to share the
articulated course description with students, who consequently had no measure of
whether they were getting the right material or not. Tenured faculty wrote self-
evaluations, again without any requirement to show whether their courses actually
matched the articulated agreements. Part-time faculty were evaluated periodically,
perhaps once every two years. This was the only time an observer might note and
comment on whether the material under discussion during a single visit fit the course
Yet, these students, upon transfer as juniors to the California State University system,
were going to face another test of their writing ability, the GWAR. Although their
performance would make or break their chance at a college degree, most of my
community college colleagues simply ignored the fact that testing of a particular style of
writing—timed, reasoned, reading-based—was in their students’ futures.
Clearly, a more professional, conscientious, student-centered approach would be to
widely publicize the aims of English 1A as articulated with the transfer institutions and to
discuss how these aims might be achieved. Adjunct faculty would be included in these
discussions because the consequences in prep time, hours devoted to grading papers, and
grading standards would apply to them. Likewise, adjuncts would be invited to
participate in textbook selection and choice of other teaching materials.
Once the aims of the course were clearly understood, it should be possible to devise an
exit essay, the results of which would be factored into each student’s final grade. The
development and administration of an exit essay would help faculty to remain focused on
the skills it was helping students to develop.
This degree of clarity would help students in their end-of-course evaluations of faculty.
Understanding the aims of the course, seeing how components of the course furthered
those aims, and finally being tested on their success in achieving those aims would help
students move away from the question of whether they “like” the teacher to whether the
course lived up to its own objectives.
This is the background I bring to Patrick Sullivan’s questions about college-level writing.
I believe that college-level writing is aptly described in the scoring rubrics of tests of
writing offered by the College Board, the California State Department of Education, and
branches of California’s higher education system.
Not wanting to present a completely narrow point of view, I shared Sullivan’s questions
with colleagues around the country, asking that they weigh in. The commentary
following each quotation is my own.
1. What makes a piece of writing “college-level”—as opposed to, say, high
“Analytical thinking is the biggest feature we look for in college writing.”
Kim Flachmann, CSU Bakersfield, California.
When students analyze assumptions, develop questions about causation, and
notice dissimilarities between objects for comparison, they are engaging in
analytical thinking. Reasoning and logic are at the heart of rhetorical analysis.
But many English faculty come to their work trained in literary analysis
with its emphasis on figurative language, or race and gender studies in which
socio-economic conditions must be identified and weighed. For these faculty,
in particular, it’s important to expand their preparation into areas of rhetoric
and critical thinking.
2. Shouldn’t a room full of college English teachers be able to come to some
kind of consensus about what “college-level” writing is—even though
they teach at a variety of schools?
“In theory, yes. In practice, a room full of English teachers can rarely achieve
a consensus on anything.” Beth Drennan, Adjunct, MATC-Reedsburg,
Unresolved differences are a consistent trait within writing departments and
Language Arts faculty. “Academic freedom” is the phrase used to dignify this
condition of outright anarchy or passive-aggressive refusal to cooperate
because faculty from different eras of graduate training must often co-exist
within departments. Rather than engage in dialogue, many faculty seek out a
niche in which they won’t have to discuss their ideas with others of equal
rank. Perhaps it is time for an educational reform involving genuine,
dispassionate discussion of ideas, probing of assumptions, and civil
agreements to disagree upon discovery of conflicts between premises.
3. If it is true that all politics are local, is it also true that standards related
to “good writing” are local, too?
“Better readers are usually better writers. Nonreaders are not usually good
writers. If „local‟ means „with regard to cultural literacy,‟ then, yes, to a
degree, good writing is „local.‟”
Connie Young, Stockton High School, Stockton, California.
Disparities between schools warp even the best-laid plans. In California, the
University of California is committed to accepting the top 5% of each high
school graduating class. Yet the top 5% of the graduates of the Oakland high
schools do not have the same level of achievement as the top 5% of the
graduates of Piedmont High School, although physical boundaries of the city
of Oakland completely surround the high-priced enclave of Piedmont. In
August 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the results of the
California High School exit exam, showing that 54% of Oakland 10th graders
were able to pass the test in English. For Piedmont schools, the figure was
98%. Advocates for the Oakland students cry “foul” when test scores register
the differences in performance ability. Because they are so ill-equipped to
compete, Oakland students are rarely allowed to attend UC Berkeley, less than
five miles away. The root of this disparity does not lie with the schools but
with the communities themselves. Californians need to encourage women
only to give birth to children who are wanted and can be cared for. Once on
this earth, children should be nourished and sheltered. Every child should
have access to medical care whether or not her parent is employed.
Transportation to and from school should be a public responsibility. (Bus fare
in Oakland runs $30 a month per child.) After-school programs would keep
school-aged children from having to go home to empty houses. Grief
counseling ought to be provided for children who lose friends, neighbors and
family members through random shootings and other urban violence. A
society which cared for its children in these ways might find its schools
4. Are variations in standards from campus to campus, state to state, and
teacher to teacher something we ought to pay some attention to or worry
about? Or should we consider them insignificant, given the complexity of
what we are teaching?
“I think „standards‟ are politically driven 70 different ways; but the qualities
that make writing interesting and instructive to read are (all but) universally
Scott Oury, Adjunct, Mt. Holyoke College, Massachusetts
Reading through the scoring guides for the writing tests under discussion, one
finds the same language over and over: the writer establishes a thesis and
develops the thesis with cogent examples and/or logical reasons. Words such
as organization appear again and again. The conventions of standard written
English are referenced. These are the universal descriptors that most of us
Secondary questions exist: Can narrative writing be analytical? To what extent
is “voice” a quality of good writing? Do gender-neutral pronouns trump the
convention of pronoun agreement in number? There is a small handful of
questions that have no clear cut answer and which could be legitimately
considered to be “variations in standards.”
5. We have an increasing number of students who come to us profoundly
unprepared to do college-level reading, writing and thinking. Is it
possible to teach these students to write at a “college-level”?
“I think the answer must be „no.‟ Unless colleges are willing to take much
more time educating these students than they currently do, we will continue to
see increasing numbers of semi-illiterate students passing through college
(somehow!) with Cs and Ds in writing. Indeed, perhaps the only answer is to
raise entrance standards and require students to seek outside help to improve
their writing skills before they can be admitted to college.”
John A. Dern, Adjunct, Gwynedd-Mercy College, Pennsylvania
It doesn’t pay to be too pessimistic. College students who decide they want to
change are no different from people who decide to lose weight or to quit
smoking. Those who really want to make the change can do so and our job is
to help them as best we can. Just as it’s not our job to decide who should lose
weight or quit smoking, it’s not our job to recruit writers, nor to reward
progress when there was none.
Whereas differences of opinion within departments may cause faculty to minimize the
fact of tests of analytical writing skill, adjuncts in all fields would be well-advised to arm
themselves with knowledge of state-wide and national tests and to incorporate these
standards into their own teaching.
This is not to say that a composition course that only replicates the testing experience will
be useful to the student. Most tests are completed in a relatively short time. They require
quick thinking. They depend upon reading ability. They are, in short, rough drafts.
A useful course would show the student how to go from the 20-minute draft to the
considered second draft and finally to the finished paper. The student would learn how to
introduce complexity, to express nuance, to introduce and address objections, and to
order a succession of thoughts.
In addition, students would benefit from writing reasoned responses to the thinking of
others. This means learning to read for ideas and evidence. I would bet my bottom dollar
that these goals are already prescribed for the Freshman Comp course wherever you go.
A responsible course would help the student learn to think on her feet, but also ground
her in accepted usages. Indeed, I have always thought that mechanics should be
considered a branch of behavioral science, as habits to be strengthened through repetition.
However, I’ve seen student writing submitted in other disciplines where standards were
not upheld and, while the student was doing well in an English class, this other writing
seemed illiterate. English teachers who pride themselves on always using an apostrophe
correctly may be surprised to learn that many students do not aspire to this goal when
they perceive they are writing to faculty who don’t care and perhaps can’t recognize
standard English usage themselves.
English teachers must be apostles for good writing throughout the campus. Workshops,
writing center activities, tutoring, forums in which faculty from other disciplines speak
about the importance of writing to their careers—all of these are activities which would
elevate the importance of writing on campus. I know a part-time faculty member who
seeks publishing opportunities for his students through the local newspapers in order to
reinforce the possibility for public effectiveness through good writing.
In addition, English teachers can encourage their colleagues in other disciplines to assign
more writing. Students writing essays in history, business and geography courses, for
example, can develop the skills of organizing, evaluating a thesis, and presenting reasons
and examples in support of an idea. May Kay Harrington of the CSU Chancellor’s Office
reminds us that preparation for the GWAR needs to be combined with a Writing Across
the Disciplines Approach.
Language Arts faculty need to discipline themselves to maintain an appropriate focus in
their composition classes. This means thinking carefully before choosing to include
works of fiction, poetry and drama in a nonfiction writing course. What rhetorical
techniques do students need to learn about? What examples of persuasion would be
helpful to them? Perhaps, instead of one’s favorite novel, students might read a skillfully
organized document that would provide a model for their own use.
Finally, if you are an adjunct and have read this far, a word of employment advice:
testing agencies often hire part-timers to score the very tests we have been discussing.
Your adjunct status may leave you with the time to do this, a blessing in disguise.
2004 STAR test results for California schools, http://sfgate.greatschools.net/catestscores
AP English Language and Composition 2003 Scoring Guidelines PDF document,
CAHSEE: English-Language Development Standards for California Public Schools:
Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve (2002) California Department of Education
website PDF file pp 77-78
CSU English Placement Test Scoring Guide http://www.ets.org/csu/index.html
The Subject A Examination Process, the University of California, 2003,