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Ready or Not?

posted: 3.2.12 by archived

The past few days my department has been debating via email a definition for the student ready for college-level writing. It’s part of the alphabet-soup of initiatives swirling these days around my campus (and education-circles generally): this one ties in to PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), feared by some community college folks as a possible threat to developmental education or as a way to focus the community college mission on “mere” vocational training.

In the past I haven’t paid much attention to such things. With one hundred students, I’m busy enough teaching composition without worrying about educational policy, and its politics seem beyond my understanding, or interest.  I’ve heard talk that high school teachers are dismayed how many of their students test into our developmental writing classes, yet I’ve seen the persistence of the five-paragraph essay form that I thought had been cast off as simplistic the time writers hit middle school. At the same time, the murmurings go, the real problem is that students spend too much time in developmental classes, and that the goal should be to shuffle them through as quickly as possible. A colleague suggests that part of the problem may be that the high school curriculum generally focuses on literature during junior and senior year, which may be at the expense of more explicit writing instruction.

It’s a complicated set of issues that seems impossible to untangle. So I try to simplify. Can we answer the theoretical question (when is a student “ready” for college-level writing?) with the practical ramification (how do we place students in developmental writing?) At my college this is done via a holistically scored placement test, a 50 minute essay written in response to reading passage and prompt. We have a rubric that gives scores from 1 to 6, with the cut-off between 2 and 3, but in real-world practice the distinctive characteristics that shift an essay from fail to pass are these: sentence-level competence, a “sense” of paragraphing, and a level of maturity and sophistication of thought that we magically intuit.

Is that rigorous enough? And beyond that, is our purpose to characterize what criteria we now use to identify the “poised-for-college” writer, or are we composing a wish list here?

I turn to a few sources. The Common Core State Standards (ELA Standards) claim that high school students should be able to “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.” The WPA/NCTE/NWP document “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” lists as habits of mind necessary for success in college-level writing, to cite the most problematic, curiosity and engagement, persistence and responsibility. I measure my college-writing students against these standards and find many lacking.

The gap is wide indeed between rhetoric of these lofty goals and the reality I see in my classroom. It’s not just the usage errors, my never-ending frustration over homonym errors and misplaced apostrophes (let alone the seeming inability to fathom the appropriate boundaries for the sentence).  It’s the inability to chunk together a main idea with some supporting details, to string those chunks together to make some sort of sense. And more than that, it’s the distaste or even disdain for reading. How can I respond when someone says, “I hate to walk,” except to say, “Yes, I know it takes effort, but how else are you going to get from one place to another?”

But I sound like one of those old codgers who tell of five mile walks to school in the winter when I tell my students about my graduate school days when I was required to fail essays that contained three or more usage errors. If I still used those guidelines, I say, ninety percent of their essays would fail (and I typically teach regular-track not developmental composition). For days I’ve been swinging back and forth between Grammar Guru self-righteousness and Susan’s much more humane response to the question of setting benchmarks for competence.

So I try this on for size. How about this as a test of college-readiness: Can a student write an accurate one-paragraph summary, with minimal usage errors, of a two- or three-page New York Times article? Feel free to weigh in with your own suggestions about what you believe to be essential for the college writer and how we might assess such competence.

Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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