“It is what is left over when everything explainable has been explained that makes a story worth writing and reading.”

Flannery O’Connor

Like Russian nesting dolls, there are ethical considerations in the art of meaningful assessment of a student’s writing ability. Cleverly stuck inside the largest doll, the student, there is another doll—assessing the student’s ability, which is inside yet a third doll—the teacher’s ability to teach, which hides the real doll—the meaningful assessment, which . . . Enough with the dolls, let’s get to the ethics.

A national debate surrounds the efficacy of standardized testing. Writing teachers debate a key element below the radar of either writing or ethics. What exactly are the ethical considerations inherent in developing a fair and meaningful assessment of a student’s writing ability?

Norbert Elliot,[1] Professor Emeritus at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has an opinion: “When we talk about ethics in writing assessment, we’re talking about fairness. The key question is, ‘Should we do any kind of assessment in which groups of students are demonstrably disenfranchised from the process?’”[2]  His answer is no. Elliot notes that different groups of students experience markedly different results on national tests. He correctly notes the reason for markedly different results might be because the students’ curriculum is not aligned with the test’s contents. Or it might also be about the form, or the structure of the test itself.”[3]

Right again, but is this an ethics issue or an efficacy issue? Another respected expert writing teacher, Mya Poe,[4] of Northeastern University, addresses the ethical dimension. “These tests are about people,” she says. “We’re making decisions about people, about students. The consideration of ethics should be the first requirement in the process. To ensure the fair development and administration of writing assessments calls for greater ‘assessment literacy’ from all involved. It means ensuring that teachers have a working understanding of different evaluation methods.”[5]

While I agree with Professors Elliot and Poe, I have the luxury of teaching a writing course on a pass/fail basis for one college credit. My assessment is based entirely on the writing submissions by my students. If they meet the specifics of the assignment, they pass. In twelve years, I haven’t failed a single student. That’s my “evaluation method.” No student has ever been “demonstrably disenfranchised from the process.” I don’t have a “standardized test.” So, on all counts, I guess my assessment is ethical. 


[1] www.norbertelliot.com

[2] http://www.ncte.org/magazine/highlights/ethics

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.northeastern.edu/cssh/people/faculty/mya-poe

[5] http://www.ncte.org/magazine/highlights/ethics