What's in a Test? Constructions of Literacy and its Implications for English Proficiency Test Design
Although college-level composition pedagogy is becoming more open to language diversity, some crucial current-traditional vestiges remain, particularly in proficiency exams. Too often these exams only identify students who are slipping through the cracks of literacy instruction, while the definition of English represented by this test limits alternate notions of writing and literacy.
The test represents local, institutional values about written English, although those values must also be consistent with national standards. Typically, administrators, teachers, and students feel compelled to choose traditional forms of writing over postmodern ones, a choice that is seldom discussed in the literature. Conflicting perspectives of English were examined at William Carey University, a liberal arts institution under a new mandate to replace the English Proficiency Exam (EPE) discontinued in 2008. The single-test assessment era has ended for Carey, as it has at other institutions described in this study. What is unique at Carey is that the English department staff who created and evaluated the exam have decided to reevaluate it by holding cross-campus conversations with faculty in other departments, asking what definition(s) of English function(s) in their departments, whether they are aligned with the English department's notions of English, and to what degree is the value of writing.
The study found vastly different perceptions of English during the period the EPE was active. Students had to be aware of these differences and bring them to bear on the exam, especially dissonance between the hyper-formal written English of the English Proficiency Exam and the Englishes practiced by many of the students, the compartmentalizations of discipline-specific needs, the individualistic expression required by one department, or the visual literacy advocated by another. Some students, I discovered, clearly sat for this exam with mixed messages about the nature of English, and they identified English as so rule-based that they often failed or barely passed. Once Writing Across the Curriculum practices advocated by writing program administrators become a more visible part of such assessments, what students already know about English from their university experience can become more evident.