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Writing Assessment: Why are we doing this to our students?

The neoliberal approach to education, an approach that bases itself in austerity and cruelty, is rooted in the test and punish cycle. Students are sorted by scores and data, rather than interests and talent. Writing, with its connections to personal style and background knowledge, should never be judged by a standardized test. Teachers that never write anything more than the odd email are charged with teaching basic writing techniques in a pedagogy that is eerily similar to the rejected and formulaic Current-Traditional Rhetoric, known simply as CTR. A top-down, managerial type teaching style is noted by critical theorist Paulo Freire as the "banking model of education" a form of pedagogy that privileges the teacher over the student and "deposits" information into an otherwise empty receptacle. The "banking model" oppresses the student by not providing them with an opportunity to experience the joy of altering reality with a problem-posing pedagogy. The "banking model" suggests that reality is fixed and static.

Peter Elbow points out that three types of assessment exist. In order to better understand why one method of assessment is superior, we have to analyze why writers write in the first place. First of all, people write to salvage something from their soul, especially when they are hurting. From this kind of misery, poetry and short stories are born, along with essays and critical, pithy statements. Transmitting messages and exploring modes of creativity typically arise out of exploratory pieces, and these exploratory pieces bare a connection to some travail in life. Storytelling comes from a well-ordered mind that aims to share a moral or idea. No one writes against their will unless it is for a standardized test. This kind of writing, because of its oppressive nature, fails to measure talent or purpose. 

Elbow, in an essay in College English, observes that gauging a piece of writing on its validity and effectiveness are the most common measures in a typical classroom. His problem with this type of assessment is that it fails to allow for how the piece makes the reader feel. Elbow argues that how the words make the reader feel is the highest form of assessment. If the purpose for writing is not left to the student, then even a well-written piece really demonstrates nothing but an ability to adhere to mechanics and form. Even assigning a particular genre to the student waters down the joy of writing, inhibiting the flow of ideas and artistry.

Obviously, the way we teach writing must change. Our students are actually writing more than ever on social media posts and electronic message boards. Self-publishing is common and apps allow for writers of all levels to share ideas and self-promote. The quality of these communications matter to our democratic society. Unless we are able to concisely explain our positions with clarity, we remain vulnerable to those who want to exploit us. Working to weed out the neoliberal test and punish cycle from the English classroom must become a priority. Neoliberals have no desire to teach civil discourse or share power. They would prefer that our students remain as spectators to democracy, rather than grow into strong individuals with an ability to transform reality.

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