Students as Pundits

More than 30 years ago the California State University implemented the English Placement Test (EPT) as an instrument for placing students in appropriate composition courses.  The test was innovative at the time because it was one of the early large-scale implementations of “holistic scoring,” a method by which essays could be scored quickly and reliably.  The test contains a 45-minute essay and two multiple choice sections: Reading Skills and Composing Skills.  The cutoff score was originally set so that about 50% of the students were required to take at least one extra composition course.

Over 30 years the percentage of students testing into these so-called “remedial” courses has remained about the same.  However, a decade ago the Trustees of the CSU became interested in “reducing the need for remediation.”  It also became apparent that while scores on the essay were going up slightly, scores on the “Reading Skills” portion were going down.  CSU implemented a number of outreach and tutoring programs to make scores go up, but the English placement thermometer appeared to be stuck on 50%.  Finally they developed something called the “Early Assessment Program” (EAP), based on a test attached to the California Standards Test (CST) that students take in the eleventh grade.   The idea was that students would find out in the eleventh grade that they would not pass the CSU placement test, giving them time to remediate themselves.

There are lots of problems with the scenario outlined above.  Why is the passrate stuck on 50% over many years of changing demographics and curriculum?  Does the EPT really establish what “college-level” writing is?  What is it really testing?  Are students below a certain score actually “remedial”?  If students don’t do well on the EAP test, what can they do?  CSU English Council, an organization representing all of the English departments in the CSU (I was president at the time), chose to address the latter question.  A delegation went to the Chancellor’s Office to argue, “Early assessment without intervention is useless.”

It took several meetings, but ultimately we were charged with creating a twelfth-grade course in expository reading and writing.   We put together a task force of CSU faculty and high school teachers and over a period of two years designed a full year course with fourteen teaching modules.  The course was designed to prepare students to do the reading and writing they would be required to do at the university and it was carefully aligned with the California English Language Arts Standards.  This course, now known as the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC), is taught in hundreds of California high schools, either fully or with modules inserted in existing courses.  More than 4,000 teachers have been trained to teach it.

One of the tools that the ERWC gives students is Aristotelian rhetorical analysis.  Aristotle argues that there are three ways to persuade an audience: through the presentation of character (ethos), through words and arguments  (logos), and through evoking the passions (pathos).  Students in the course learn to apply these terms to speeches, essays, and op-ed pieces.  The ability to see the tools of rhetoric at work in the text appears to give the students a feeling of power over it, or at least that is what they report in focus groups.

An ERWC teacher recently sent me an email describing the class she taught the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration.  When the students sat down at the beginning of the period, each desk had a copy of Obama’s speech.  The students were asked to annotate the speech, looking for examples of Aristotle’s three rhetorical appeals.  The students immediately began sharing examples of ethos, logos, and pathos, and their teacher found that they were saying some of the same things she had heard pundits say on television the night before.   She was so proud of them that she had to email me to tell me about it.

I think this is the best sort of English education.  The students are learning tools that, while 2,000 years old, can be applied to their own lives and society, and that give them something to say in the larger conversation.   In no time, some of these classroom pundits will be undoubtedly be in the media themselves, explaining the ways of the world to the rest of us.

For more information about the ERWC:

Expository Reading and Writing Course

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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