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Volume 12, Issue 1: 2019

Introduction: Writing Assessment, Placement, and the Two-Year College

by Christie Toth, University of Utah, Jessica Nastal, Prairie State College, Holly Hassel, North Dakota State University, and Joanne Baird Giordano, Salt Lake Community College

Two-year colleges are experiencing rapid change, much of which is driven by reform-minded higher education researchers, philanthropists, and policymakers seeking to improve degree completion rates in the nation’s open-admissions community colleges. As part of this broader push for reform, placement has come under increased scrutiny, and many two-year colleges are reevaluating and reimagining longstanding placement practices. To set the context for the 2018 special issue of Journal of Writing Assessment on Writing Placement at Two-Year Colleges, this introductory essay reviews five scholarly conversations essential for understanding the issues and stakes: 1) the distinctive histories, missions, demographics, and constraints and opportunities of open admissions two-year colleges; 2) the nature, problems, and possibilities of the reform pressures currently bearing on two-year colleges and placement; 3) the history of writing placement assessment and the theoretical debates surrounding its purposes and efficacy; 4) the recent ethical turn in writing assessment toward sociocultural models of validity and implications for writing placement at two-year colleges; and 5) emerging calls in two-year college writing studies for teacher-scholar-activism and critical reform that encourage faculty to take responsibility for challenging inequitable placement processes. 

Beyond Tradition: Writing Placement, Fairness, and Success at a Two-Year College

by Jessica Nastal, Prairie State College

This archival study analyzed the impact of a writing skills placement test at a minority-serving community college. With special emphasis on 1,029 students in the lowest level of developmental writing class, attention was given to both performance (grades and grade point average) and to student placement (in terms of sex and race/ethnicity) from 2012-2016. With findings indicating undue burden on Black students as the result of the placement test, the case study is used to raise questions of success, its formulation, and the instrumental value of the case for next-generation fairness measures for two-year colleges.

Keywords: college composition, fairness, writing placement, two-year college studies, writing assessment

Let Them In: Increasing Access, Completion, and Equity in English Placement Policies at a Two-Year College in California

by Leslie Henson, Butte College and Katie Hern, California Acceleration Project

This article uses a disparate impact analysis framework to assess the impact of a policy change in writing assessment that roughly doubled the proportion of students placing into college English at Butte College, a two-year college in California. After establishing the disparate impact of placement, we tracked how students performed in college English, subsequent college courses, and overall college completion under the new policy. We found that substantially more students completed college English compared to previous cohorts, with Asian, African American, Latinx, and Native American students’ completion of college English doubling or tripling. Upon taking subsequent college courses, students placing into college English under the new policy performed as well as those who had qualified for college English under the more restrictive policy. Overall college completion outcomes, including degree completion and meeting the criteria for transferring to 4-year universities, have generally improved and become more equitable since the 2011 policy change. These findings suggest that broadening access to college English can be a powerful lever for reducing racial and ethnic gaps in the completion of college English and may help to reduce gaps in the attainment of other, longer-term college completion outcomes.

Keywords: placement; disparate impact; college completion; equity; multiple measures.

Directed Self-Placement at Two-Year Colleges: A Kairotic Moment

by Christie Toth, University of Utah

As national reform efforts are reshaping community college policies with the goal of improving degree completion rates, many two-year colleges are rethinking longstanding course placement processes. Directed Self-Placement (DSP) has emerged as one increasingly visible and viable option for placing students into introductory English and mathematics courses. However, higher education researchers advocating placement reform demonstrate little familiarity with the extensive scholarly literature on DSP in writing studies. To date, that literature has focused almost exclusively on 4-year institutions, with few studies of DSP at two-year colleges. This article begins to address these gaps by (a) reviewing writing studies scholarship on DSP to identify key theoretical insights that are missing in the community college placement reform literature and (b) presenting findings from semi-structured interviews with implementation leaders at twelve 2-year colleges that have attempted DSP. These findings demonstrate a more extensive record of DSP for writing placement at 2-year colleges than has previously been visible in published scholarship, and that DSP can be successful in these institutional settings. These findings also demonstrate distinctive considerations, challenges, and opportunities for DSP at open admissions 2-year colleges that warrant greater attention from placement reformers and writing assessment scholars.