Huot & Neal, “Writing Assessment: A Techno-history”

Huot, Brian & Micheal Neal “Writing Assessment: A techno-history” (15 pages)

Huot and Neal offer a history of assessment framed around motives of technological developments. Referencing Madaus, “testing also fits some very simple definitions of technology—the simplest being something put together for a purpose to satisfy a pressing or immediate need, or to solve a problem” (418). When we understand testing—particularly writing assessment—as a technology, the authors are able to reflect writing assessment upon Western assumptions about technologies: writing assessment as progress, as ideologically neutral, and as efficient, objective, and reliable.

Writing Assessment as Progress: Huot and Neal argue, here, that the development of technologies can be understood as a dialectical structure. Technologies are often developed within the assumptions of a dominant discourse; however, there is often an anti-dominant discourse community that “adopts a critical stance to technologies by pointing out potential ways that technologies adversely act upon a population or location” (419). However, as the authors note, the anti-dominant discourse is often widely ignored by the dominant discourse claiming that the new technologies are necessarily better than what came before. Moreover, the authors also discuss how the voices from the anti-dominant discourse surrounding new technologies becomes louder when accepted technologies begin to scale up, often uncritically, and entering into contexts and with purposes drastically different than what was once accepted. Thus, a dialectic allows us to look more critically at technologies of use.

Writing assessment as Ideologically Neutral: referencing Langdon Winner, the authors point to different ways that writing assessment—and technologies more generally—are not necessarily ideologically neutral as is often accepted in Western assumptions of technology:

  • DESIGN: “writing assessments can be ideological in their planning, design, and development”
  • CONTEXT: “writing assessments embody political qualities because of the complex educational and social systems in which they were created and operate”
  • USE: “their ideologies are malleable depending on their use and application”
  • INHERENT: “Other assessment technologies, however, are inherently political in specific ways regardless of design, use, or context”

Expanding on these ideas, the authors discuss how we can understand writing assessment as a hegemonic exercise despite its perceived prevention of granting opportunity without merit. As they write, “testing [is] viewed as largely hegemonic exercises re-inscribing current power relations in American Society…’tests are used as disciplinary tools by those in authority, enticing text takers [and those who prepare them] to change their behavior along the demands to maximize their [students’] scores’” (Slohamy xvi qtd in Huot & Neal 422). The authors take a particular focus on assessments use because those discussions often align with discussion of the validity of a test: if we plan to use a pre-existing assessment for a new use (e.g. using a high school portfolio requirement as placement in college), a new validity argument needs to constructed in order to account for the new usage crafted onto the preexisting tech.

Writing Assessment as Efficient, Objective, and Reliable: Efficiency has often been a large motivating factor in the development of new technology for assessing writing, often using the guiding principle of reliability: “inherently efficient, mechanized writing assessments are often touted for their superior objectivity and reliability, since machine scoring student essays can replicate with consistency the same scores for the same paper” (423). Such assumptions frame assessment arguments along the binary of objective and subjective whereby objectivity is valued over subjectivity (which appears to be in the realm of educators, teachers, etc). However, as they warn (vis Herington and Moran), such assumptions—and implementation of machine scoring—often “defines writing as an act of formal display, not a rhetorical interaction between a writer and readers” (424). Much like the previous section, we must consider these technologies on their ideological and epistemological impact.

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