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Beyond the Basics: Questions and Reflections

posted: 6.11.12 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Recently I had occasion to look at my undergraduate transcripts, and there I saw my scores from the ACT test, the high-stakes test that many US Midwestern high school students take in place of the SAT.  Although I had forgotten the exact numbers, I knew that the scores had been far from exemplary.  Yet there they stood on the transcript in sharp relief: a math score of 10 and a composite score of 17 (out of 36; a writing test was not included the year I took the ACT).  With a deep shock of recognition, I realized how different my life could have been if my education had been circumscribed by those numbers. Indeed, the numbers do not tell the entire story.

In those days, basic math was not a graduation requirement at my small undergraduate liberal arts college. Instead, students fulfilled a general education requirement in quantitative literacy. To meet this requirement, I took introductory science courses in geology, biology, and experimental psychology—the same courses taken by students who would major in those fields. My lack of adequate math background was a hardship, yet I was used to overcompensating for such difficulties and managed to squeak by and benefit from participating in difficult coursework.

Because I was enrolled in general education and not remediation, I vividly remember my own experiences of strengths-based overcompensation. I understood that writing skills were my strength, and I practiced thick description in writing lab reports. If the college had a learning center at that time, it was not on my radar screen. However, I did understand how to ask for help, though asking was never an easy or a pleasant task.

Since I knew about peer tutoring from my informal work with younger writers, I asked my classmates in the sciences for help. Requesting assistance felt uncomfortable, as if I were breaking unspoken social rules for individual achievement at a private, selective admissions college. Yet I endured my personal discomfort, and my peers—to their credit—overlooked the obvious breach of etiquette, explaining those equations, again and again, until enough light broke through the clouds of confusion.

Many years later my quirks of overcompensation would be identified as ADHD. My undergraduate years predated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so the legal route to ask for accommodations did not yet exist. Even if the ADA had been available, ADHD was poorly understood and was often under-diagnosed in girls and women, so there was no material reason to believe that I needed accommodations.

Yet I see this story as less about an individual “overcoming” disabilities and more about the significance of sustained support networks throughout my education.  As a first-year college student, I felt daunted by having to take so much science, especially since I had no plans to major in a scientific field. Yet part of what sustained me in school was an opportunity to take on difficult subjects and to grapple with those subjects at an advanced level. 

I offer this story because I believe that the label “low-level” does a great disservice to students enrolled in our basic writing courses. Often, basic writing enrollment depends on high-stakes tests that claim to measure potential but are not sufficient for measuring students’ drive and motivation to learn. Yet “low-level” scores and course placements carry implications that speak volumes to students and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, when we use the term low-level, to what level are we referring: students’ previous levels of achievement as measured by high-stakes tests— or students’ potential to learn? If we focus on students’ previous achievements, then we bring with us a deficit model that students have every right to contest. If we concentrate on students’ potential to learn—and our own potential to teach—then we open the door for growth and possibility.  Either stance will not automatically put an end to students’ frustrations with enrolling in our courses. But at least we can begin to imagine a new paradigm for conceiving of students’ development as writers and scholars. 

From my own experiences, I was eventually drawn to pedagogies based on students’ strengths that resist placing students in “marginal” categories and that refuse to label courses as low-level. Such pedagogies lead me to still more questions about basic writing as a field. How can we remove the use of words like low-level, marginal, remedial—or even basic writer? What can we do to eliminate labeling so that the students’ potential is not defined by limited measures of achievement? Indeed, how can we learn to see students’ potential beyond high stakes test scores and subsequent placement in writing courses?

I invite you to join me in reflecting on these questions and to post your own questions and reflections in the comments section here, and on the Council on Basic Writing Facebook page. Together we can investigate what a strengths-based perspective might mean for basic writing—and what it would truly mean for our students and ourselves to go beyond the basics.


Categories: Basic Writing
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2 Responses to “Beyond the Basics: Questions and Reflections”

  1. Michelle, University of Cincinnati Says:

    I really appreciate the fact that you resist the disability hero narrative. That way of telling the story of living with disabilities can be terribly damaging. Nice work.

  2. Chitralekha Duttagupta, Utah Valley University Says:

    A starting point to removing labels would be a greater awareness of who basic writers are and what they are capable of achieving beyond standardized test scores. Also required is open mindedness, a willingness to re-think stereotypes that we hang on to. Finally, we need to understand the limitations of high stakes tests.