How Far We’ve Come: Eroding CUNY’s Mission One Test at a Time

Oh, How We Justify! Oh, How We Turn Away!

October 31, 2011

Yesterday, in partnership with Learning Specialist AE Dreyfuss, I presented a paper at “The CUNY Conference on Best Practices in Reading/Writing Instruction.”  We talked about a pilot project we are conducting using Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction and the Peer-Led Team Learning concept.  The other papers on our panel were quite interesting–and I learned something from each.  The people at the conference all seemed genuinely caring and concerned for our CUNY students.

I should have known, when I saw who the Plenary Speaker was going to be, that many of the attendees were going to be in for a surprise.  The Conference centered on preparing students for the CUNY Assessment Test in Writing (CATW), the new entrance exam dividing students into those who can fully matriculate and enroll in First Year Composition (FYC) and those to be forced into remediation.  Ira Shor, described on the program as “Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, CUNY Graduate School, and distinguished Freirean scholar,” would not normally be seen as a natural fit in such a gathering.  After all, Shor, very much on the left himself, hasn’t just studied Paolo Freire, but actually worked and wrote with the Brazilian theorist and agitator for educational change.  To think that he would ignore the inequities of a test that is top-down in its execution, its formulation, and its mandate would have been naive, at best.

And, of course, he did not.  His talk, with the title “Forty Years of War on CUNY: Teaching and Learning in Dangerous Times,” started quite safely.  He spoke of history, of the founding of the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847 (first students enrolled in 1849), the ancestor of City College and the entire system.  He spoke of his own history, of coming to CUNY in 1971 during the upheaval of open enrollment.  He spoke of change and its origins.

Only at the end did he hit us where we live, challenging our acceptance of entrance exams that were mandated for political, not pedagogical reasons.  He had talked about how, in his early days at CUNY, with five times as many students as the campus really had room for, he and his colleagues at the College of Staten Island still found time to talk to individual students about which composition course to register for, how the students, ultimately, had been able to choose, Basic Writing or FYC, and could do so wisely.  He challenged our acceptance of reliance on adjunct instructors and told us that our tests were keeping the students outsiders.  He belittled the belief that, in one or two semesters, we can prepare students of adequately utilize the language of academia.

As he talked, I looked around at the faces in the audience.  They were glum; few were nodding.  Fewer still leaned forward in their chairs, paying close attention.  Some were deliberately turning away.  Shor was challenging what many of them had spent the morning justifying… on my panel, one person had extolled the exam as providing a means for preparing students for many facets of learning.  Another had claimed that students “should” know how to write on any “prompt” (writing sample) they were given, no matter the topic–and that the preparation for the exam showed them how to do this.

As Shor stated outright or implied, exam prep (even in a semester- or year-long class) cannot prepare students for full participation in an academic environment–and preparing students to write on “anything” teaches them the precedence of form over content and leaves communication out of the mix completely.  The people making such claims (and many others) merely justify a system that, Shor made clear, cannot be justified.

So, it was not surprising that the reaction to Shor was a little less than completely positive.  When he ended, there was mild applause, kept up with enthusiasm by about a quarter of us while others turned to talk to each other or got up to make their ways to afternoon sessions.  I had expected that Shor (after all, he is an internationally known figure, author of a number of quite influential books) would be mobbed by fans like me afterwards.  He was not.  I was sitting in the back of the audience, yet I was the first to approach him.

Although I suspect Shor’s message was shut out by the majority of the audience, his comments were quite on target, especially in today’s environment of measurement mania.  Maybe, at some point, they will seep through the walls even of those so invested in the CATW that they were, yesterday, unwilling to hear him.

For hear him they should.

On the Appropriateness of Topics for Impromptu Writing Exams

Nov. 1, 2011

When I expressed, to a group of others teaching developmental writing within the CUNY system, the complaints I had heard from students about the topics they has been asked to write about on the CUNY Assessment Test in Writing (CATW), I got two responses.  One was that the prompt, concerning whether or not amateurs should be continued to be allowed as entrants in the New York City Marathon, was a particular favorite.  The other was a shrug and a comment that students should be able to write in response to any prompt, no matter the topic.

I bit my tongue.  The gathering was collegial and I did not trust myself to be civil.

In terms of what students can do with them, not all prompts are created equal.  The Marathon may seem like a topic open to any writer, no matter their background–after all, running is something most people can do–but it really is not.  For writers from middle-class backgrounds, jogging is something they’ve seen around them since early childhood–and it is likely those writers have even known marathoners.  The races are a known part of life, and topics around them have been floating by since they first started listening to the conversations of adults.  Even the distinction between amateurs and professionals would be a known matter.

It is possible to keep something as a hobby, to the middle class, in a way that is not apparent to immigrants and the poor, to people who need to keep financial survival front and center.  The very idea of amateurism is somewhat foreign, unless one comes from a rather privileged background.  One would not put in the time necessary to get to the point of running a marathon simply for the satisfaction of doing it, were one not from the middle class.  The same goes for other motivations for jogging, including health benefits.  So, the very question posed by the prompt would be more foreign and less accessible to many poor and immigrant students taking the exam, placing a burden on them as writers that others lack.  The question contains a built-in inequity that the teacher who liked it (herself likely a runner, given her appearance) does not understand.

The other response, that students should be able to write on anything, presupposes an ability to engage in academic discourse that many students have never been exposed to, let alone have developed.  Being able to talk or write about anything one comes across results from years of training in language use and in observation.  It is not something brought to college, not by most students, certainly.  Expecting it privileges students from academic families or, at least, households with college-educated parents.

Both of these people were defending a testing regime that is indefensible, anyhow.  Arguing about the specific utility of parts of the test should be seen as beside the point–for the idea of the test itself, mandated by political forces onto CUNY, has no real foundation except as a means of exclusion.  The small, further exclusions within particular manifestations of the test don’t matter much at all.

That said, we all have an obligation to our students to do all we can to prepare them to negotiate the CATW successfully.  It doesn’t matter how we feel about the exam: the students’ futures are on the line.  To help my students, I need to understand the problems they face in even entering into the type of topic they are likely to encounter on the test.  I should never defend the prompt; liking a particular prompt, or resorting to blanket “shoulds,” doesn’t help, but removes me further from being able to assist.  The two teachers who commented aren’t starting where their students are, but (in the first case) where she, the particular teacher, is or (in the second case) from an ideal of what a student ought to be.

As teachers, none of us should be defending the prompts or the test as a concept or barrier.  We should not be invested in the test in any fashion.  Instead, we should be invested in our students, in making sure they are as prepared as we can possibly assist them in becoming by the time they take the exam again (they are in developmental classes for not having passed the last time).  Yet there are many of us, now, who have build careers around the test, and who now give it the priority instead of the student.

That is even more inappropriate than a prompt giving priority to the middle class.


Aaron Barlow | Associate Professor, New York City College of Technology.  Aaron is the author of several books includingThe Rise of the Blogosphere, Blogging America: The New Public Sphere, and the forthcoming Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children.