This chapter articulates writing assessment as a technology, theorized with three aspects (power, parts, and purpose), accounting for the ways in which assessment dialectically constructs and is constructed by its historical environment. Seeing writing assessment as a technology provides a full account of assessment as an environment of conflict and social (re)production, but most importantly, it accounts for racial formations existing around it and because of it. This articulation of writing assessment reveals problems with the concept of validity (and traditional validation research), particularly consequential validity. The chapter concludes by offering racial validity, which investigates how our writing assessments reproduce and are produced by the racial formations in and around our schools, classrooms, and writing assessments.
Writing assessment, both classroom and large-scale, perhaps can be best understood as a technology with three aspects: power, parts, and purpose. Writing assessment’s history in the U.S. and the social formations created by it not only suggest such an articulation of writing assessment, but demonstrate a need for us to reconceptualize assessment in ways that address more directly the racial formations that assessment technologies produce, which further demonstrates that racial formations in society and schools are not natural, nor inevitable, but engineered, therefore changeable.1 In this chapter, I begin by offering a brief account of assessment as one way society produces social arrangements, making it a technology in general terms. I trace earlier discussions of “testing” as a technology, which use the term in a less productive “instrumentalist” fashion. Then I define technology as an environment, and offer a more detailed theory of writing assessment as a technology. For this theory of writing assessment, I draw on Michel Foucault’s (1977) analysis of power and its disciplinary tactics, Andrew Feenberg’s (1991) “critical theory of technology” and his use of Marcuse’s (1998, originally published in 1936) discussion of technology and “technological rationality,” and George Madaus’s original definition of testing as a technology that he began formulating almost two decades ago (Madaus, 1990; Madaus, 1993; Madaus and Horn 2000). My discussion of “technology” is not one, however, concerned directly with computers or new media in writing assessment, although it does not exclude these commonly assumed forms of “technology.” Framing these three aspects of technology, I use Antonio Gramsci’s (2000) theorizing of hegemony and historical bloc, which provide ways to understand how technology is imbricated in the historical, political, and material, and how power may be the unifying aspect in technology. Throughout my discussion, I use data from my own institution’s writing program assessment endeavors in order to illustrate both the technological aspects of a writing assessment and possible racial validity inquiries. I will not, however, engage in any validity arguments in this chapter, only suggest possibilities. In the last portion of this chapter, I argue that by understanding writing assessment as a technology, racial validity becomes important as a new organizing concept for validity inquiries.2 The purpose of this chapter is to articulate writing assessment as a technology that reveals more clearly the racism and racial formations that our practices often produce,3 articulate clearly racial validity as a distinct inquiry into our writing assessment practices, then offer some strategies for making racial validity arguments from such articulations of writing assessment.
Before I begin, I need to provide some context for the data I’ll insert throughout this chapter. My current institution, California State University, Fresno, is in the middle of a five year pilot writing program that uses directed self-placement (DSP) and a program portfolio in all mandatory First Year Writing (FYW) courses. Because of the newest of the pilot, I will not attempt to produce any validity arguments here, only suggest directions for validity inquiries. Our DSP system, like others, allows our students to choose from several options, or paths, to fulfill their university writing requirement.4 The most common choice is the “stretch” program, which is a year long, two course sequence (Engl 5A and 5B). The other main choice is an accelerated, one semester course, Engl 10. A few students select a course called Ling 6 (offered through the Linguistics Department), which helps them with more extreme native language proficiency issues to get ready to take Engl 5A and 5B.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Consequential Validity: An argument that explains the social consequences of an assessment’s decisions through empirical evidence and theoretical rationales.
Historical Bloc: A neo-Marxian term from Antonio Gramsci that explains the ways in which social practices (structure) both are created by and create the values and theories (superstructure) we use to rationalize and explain our practices.
Validity: An argument that explains the degree to which empirical evidence and theoretical rationales support the adequacy and appropriateness of decisions made from an assessment.
Assessment Technology: An historically situated, hegemonic environment in which power is made, used, and, transformed, that consists of sets of artifacts and technical codes, manipulated by institutionally-sanctioned agents, constructed for particular purposes that have relations to abstract ideas and concepts, and whose effects or outcomes shape, and are shaped by, the racial, class-based, gender, and other socio-political arrangements.
Racial Formation: The product and process of a host of social projects that contribute to conceptions, constructions, and social arrangements based on “race” as a lived phenomenon, a theoretical concept, and an organizing principle by which people act in their worlds.
Disciplinary Strategies: Taken from Foucault, this term refers to the way power, as a set of tactics, tables, and determined activities, constructs people as “docile bodies.”
Technological Rationality: A term from Herbert Marcuse that refers to the ways in which physical mechanisms and technologies that people interact with contain in their designs and uses logics that feel inevitable and unavoidable, and create our choices.
Hegemony: A neo-Marxian term from Antonio Gramsci that refers to the multitude of economic, political, moral, and cultural relations of force that produce coercion and consent in society between dominated groups (usually the proletariat) for the benefit of political leadership, or the dominant group (usually the bourgeoisie).
Racial Validity: An argument that explains the degree to which empirical evidence of racial formations around an assessment and the theoretical frameworks that account for racial formations support the adequacy and appropriateness of inferences and decisions made from the assessment.