Volume 12, Issue 1: 2019

Editors’ Introduction: Special Issue on Two-Year College Writing Placement

by Diane Kelly-Riley and Carl Whithaus

In this Special Issue, we are pleased to present scholarship that focuses exclusively on writing assessment issues at two-year colleges. A significant percentage of students enrolling in postsecondary education first encounter writing instruction in two-year college settings. The ways in which two-year colleges assess student writing and use that assessment to place students into writing courses has important pedagogical, disciplinary, political, social, and, even, ethical implications. Two-year institutions can be public or private and are categorized by multiple missions. They can be “a postsecondary school that offers general or liberal arts education...leading to an associate’s...degree. Junior colleges and community colleges are included” (Hussar & Bailey, 2019, p. 149). They also have a broader mandate, serving as sites of career and technical education

structured to develop needed skills for the diverse, modern workforce…[they are] as diverse as the students they serve. More than 1100 community colleges across the nation serve more than 12 million students annually…[and] are accessible and provide a critical pathway for students to reach their educational goals. (Bumphus, 2018)

According to the Projections of Education Statistics, total full-time enrollment in two-year institutions in 2016 was nearly 6.1 million students. (Hussar & Bailey, 2019, p. 59). In the last 20 years, two-year college enrollment and degree attainment has skyrocketed, and the demographic profile of the students who attend two-year colleges more closely mirrors the rapidly changing demographic of the rest of the United States. In 2016, the total enrollment in degree granting postsecondary institutions was 19,841,014 (Hussar & Bailey, 2019, p. 59), suggesting that nearly 60% of postsecondary students have some contact with two-year colleges.

Two-year colleges have become the focus of educational reformers with strong legislative support. These reforms vary from state to state with a complex set of issues that includes writing placement, developmental education, and acceleration. In 2014, the Two-Year College English Association (TYCA) Executive Committee approved the “TYCA White Paper on Developmental Education Reforms,” noting that rapid and substantive reforms were underway in developmental courses. The TYCA Executive Committee wrote,

Current reform movements revolve around several interconnected areas: admissions to four-year colleges, placement in developmental or college-level courses, curriculum and program design, and support programs. In some states, four-year state colleges are no longer allowed to offer developmental coursework, which pushes students into already overburdened two-year colleges. Placement into degree-credit courses is also being mandated. In some states, a single test is being implemented across all colleges, regardless of best practices. In other states, more welcome reforms are offered, such as multiple measures of placement, including high-school GPA. At the same time, certain category-based exemptions from readiness assessment—high-school diploma holders, veterans—raise serious questions. Curricula and program designs are also being legislatively mandated, too often without attention to local context and without appropriate faculty training and input. (Hassel et al., 2015, p. 227)

In documenting the impact of these rapid changes, the authors of the TYCA White Paper noted,

Two-year college faculty are frequently charged with implementing these initiatives and asked to make decisions about program redesign with little time for study and without training or compensation. Moreover, legislative reforms routinely overlook the varying institutional structures that reflect deep divides in training, pedagogy, and theoretical perspectives among faculty and different disciplines. (Hassel et al., 2015, pp. 227-228)

Hassel et al. (2015) are indeed persuasive when they call attention to the need to consider how developmental education reforms impact students and faculty across different community colleges and in different disciplines. Part of the work of this Special Issue on Two-Year College Writing Placement is to examine how the enactment of developmental education reforms in different states impact students’ experiences with writing placement, writing assessment, and developmental--as well as accelerated--writing courses.

In addition to the important issues around preparation, learning, and curricula, discussions of two-year colleges often point to the ways in which a streamlined path through postsecondary education could create improvements for the U.S. economy. However, the effect of these substantive and rapid reform efforts on the nation’s economy are not yet clear. Complete College America (CCA), one of the primary postsecondary educational reform players, notes that, for every 100 students starting college at two-year colleges 34 are enrolled in English remediation while at four-year institutions only 12 are enrolled in remedial English courses (CCA, n.d., “Data Dashboard”). Two-year colleges tend to be more diverse and reflect the changing demographic of the U.S. population. Between 2016 and 2027,

Enrollment of U.S. residents [in postsecondary study] is projected to decrease 8 percent for students who are White (10.7 million versus 9.9 million); increase 6 percent for students who are Black (2.6 million versus 2.8 million); increase 14 percent for students who are Hispanic (3.4 million versus 3.9 million); increase 7 percent for students who are Asian/Pacific Islander (1.3 million versus 1.4 million); decrease 9 percent for students who are American Indian/Alaska Native (142,000 versus 129,000); and remain about the same for students who are of two or more races (664,000 versus 666,000). (Hussar & Bailey, 2019, p. 27)

These linguistically and culturally diverse student populations will have an effect on how students are placed in writing courses and how writing is taught in two-year college settings. Assessment practices reinforce cultural and educational values; the ways in which assessments--particularly writing placement assessments--work should be examined to understand the values they reinforce. If the assessments are not evolving to reflect current values and expectations, they may be detrimental to the intended social and educational effects of increasing access to higher education. Given the evolution in educational measurement theory and practice seen in the 2014 edition of the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, it is time to start directly studying the influences and consequences of writing assessment practices upon students at two-year colleges. In fact, as the authors in this Special Issue note, writing assessment research for community colleges has previously been done to them or with the faculty or students as after thoughts. We believe that the movements noted by Toth, Nastal, Hassel, and Giordano in the introduction to this Special Issue are key turns for all of us in postsecondary settings. Community colleges have been on the front lines of educational reform, and, through open-access admissions, their institutions have more directly experienced the rapidly changing demographic shift of the U.S. population and the pedagogical and assessment implications. It is no longer appropriate to do any kind of writing assessment research without specifically addressing the ways in which such assessment practices affect two-year college students or students completing post-secondary work through dual-enrollment systems.

In the “Introduction: Writing Assessment, Placement, and the Two-Year College,” Christie Toth, Jessica Nastal, Holly Hassel, and Joanne Baird Giordano outline the dynamics driving this Special Issue by reviewing five scholarly conversations for understanding the two-year college context. Next, Jessica Nastal takes up the challenge of examining how writing assessment and placement practices impact students. In “Beyond Tradition: Writing Placement, Fairness, and Success at a Two-Year College,” Nastal draws on institutional data about writing placement, race, and student success in developmental writing courses. Drawing on recent work on fairness, ethics, and developmental education reform, Nastal argues for the development of placement techniques that better promote access to educational opportunities and, ultimately, more timely student success. In “Are We Whom We Claim to Be? A Case Study of Language Policy in Community College Writing Placement Practices,” Holly Gilman examines the tensions between the language policies embedded in a Pacific Northwest community college’s writing placement system and their institutional commitment to diversity. Gilman shows how a writing placement system with an underlying language ideology focused on correctness and standardized usage works to undercut moves to support diversity at the college. Leslie Henson and Katie Hern conduct a disparate impact analysis by race about their institution’s use of a single-score placement practice and the more equitable results when more and better information about students’ needs were included in the placement process. Henson and Hern’s work highlights the importance of local context and faculty expertise in educational settings. This point is all the more salient considering Butte College’s location where “over 871 Butte College students and 139 employees have lost their homes by the devastating Camp Fire [in the summer of 2018]. Hundreds more are displaced or are sheltering friends and family” (Butte College, n.d.). Next, Christie Toth reviews implications of the lack of scholarship on directed self-placement for two-year college settings. As Toth notes, this method was conceived of and developed at four-year institutions, and it is important to validate them for the particular conditions and populations at two-year colleges. We concur that such considerations need to be made from the start. In their reflection, “An Admitted Student is a Qualified Student: A Roadmap for Writing Placement in the Two-Year College,” Mya Poe, Jessica Nastal, and Norbert Elliot take up the challenges that face faculty at two-year colleges: institutional structures, working conditions, and the multiple roles faculty play at two-year colleges. Consideration of these issues are essential to advancing our theoretical aspirations for fairness through our collective lived experience. The Special Issue concludes with the multi-authored piece, “Forum: Two-Year College Writing Placement as Fairness” by Holly Gilman, Joanne Baird Giordano, Nicole Hancock, Holly Hassel, Leslie Henson, Katie Hern, Jessica Nastal, and Christie Toth. This piece highlights shared convictions among the contributors to this Special Issue but also acknowledges places of contention and unresolved questions. Out of the conversations made visible in this piece, as well as through their full-length articles in this Special Issue, Gilman, Giordano, Hancock, Hassel, Henson, Hern, Nastal, and Toth suggest areas for further research into writing assessment, placement, and instruction at two-year colleges. As they note, “This special issue offers colleagues useable resources to advance equitable opportunities for student learning in two-year colleges. Indeed, we hope it helps our entire disciplinary community become better hosts to the writers we greet at the open door.” Their work extends our knowledge not only about writing assessment but also about the ways in which writing assessment systems are impacting students’ lives.

This Special Issue on writing placement at two-year colleges was proposed by a group of writing assessment scholars and two-year college writing faculty, and was coordinated by Christie Toth. In the review process, we attempted to ensure that a significant number of our reviewers had experience teaching at and working in community college settings. We appreciate the following colleagues who generously donated their time and expertise. We are grateful for their service and contribution to the field:

Jared Anthony, Spokane Falls Community College

Chris Blankenship, Salt Lake Community College

Bradley Bleck, Spokane Falls Community College

Beverly Chin, University of Montana

Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt, Yakima Valley College

Jason Evans, Prairie State College

Brett Griffiths, Macomb Community College

Bruce Horner, University of Louisville

Richard Haswell, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi

Meagan Newberry, College of Western Idaho

Naomi Silver, University of Michigan

Howard Tinberg, Bristol Community College

Scott Wible, University of Maryland

As ever, the Journal of Writing Assessment relies on a large team to bring you this excellent scholarship. We are indebted to the JWA Editorial Team: Associate Editor, Jessica Nastal-Dema of Prairie State College and Associate Editor, Tialitha Macklin of Boise State University. They serve as editors of the JWA Reading List, which highlights emerging writing assessment scholarship. We are grateful to Assistant Editor, Gita DasBender from New York University for her coordination of reviews and reviewers; Digital Archivist, Johanna Phelps-Hillen of Washington State University Vancouver for her work on organizing and archiving JWA’s extensive files; Social Media Coordinator and Indexer, Mathew Gomes of Santa Clara University for his work communicating with external audiences; Technology Coordinator, Stephen McElroy of Florida State University for his work producing and publishing JWA articles. We are also grateful for the detail-oriented and careful work of our Editorial Assistants, Stacy Wittstock of University of California, Davis; Katherine Kirkpatrick of Clarkson College; and Skyler Meeks of Utah Valley University. All of these positions are volunteer, and we are grateful for the generous donation of their time and expertise. Also, we bid a bittersweet adieu to Jessica Nastal who has worked with the Journal of Writing Assessment since 2011. We are grateful for her collegiality, keen eye, generous insights, and perceptiveness. We will miss working with her but are excited for the opportunities that lie ahead as she assumes new duties as Developmental Editor with the Journal of Writing Analytics.

This year, we also welcomed several new additions to the Journal of Writing Assessment Editorial Board. Our invitation to them asked that they advise our editorial group about the development and direction of the journal, review manuscripts within their areas of interest, identify potential reviews for JWA to help build and diversify our reviewer pool, and promote and recommend the journal broadly. Our editorial board members:

Chris Anson, North Carolina State University

Will Banks, East Carolina University

Christopher Blankenship, Salt Lake Community College

Bob Broad, Illinois State University

Carolyn Calhoon-Dilahunt, Yakima Valley College

Sheila Carter-Tod, Virginia Tech

Dylan Dryer, University of Maine

David Eubanks, Furman University

Holly Hassel, North Dakota State University

Brian Huot, Kent State University

Asao Inoue, University of Washington, Tacoma

Marisa Klages-Bombich, Laguardia Community College

Aja Martinez, Syracuse University

Peggy O'Neill, Loyola University Maryland

Mya Poe, Northeastern University

Ellen Schendel, Grand Valley State University

Tony Silva, Purdue University

Christie Toth, University of Utah

Terry Underwood, California State University, Sacramento

Amy Vidali, University of California, Santa Cruz

Edward Wolfe, Pearson

Robert Yagelski, SUNY-Albany

Kathleen Blake Yancey, Florida State University

We are grateful to them for their support and guidance. Finally, we appreciate the financial support of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences and the English Department at the University of Idaho for their continued financial support of the Journal of Writing Assessment. This financial support ensures JWA remains an independent journal that publishes scholarship by and for teachers and scholars of writing assessment. We would also like to thank the University Writing Program of the University of California, Davis for support of the JWA Reading List.


Bumphus, W. (2018, March 30). Editorial: What are community colleges? Are they vocational schools? American Association of Community Colleges. Retrieved from https://www.aacc.nche.edu/2018/03/30/editorial-what-are-community-colleges-are-they-vocational-schools/

Butte College. (n.d.). Additional resources. Retrieved from http://www.butte.edu/campfire/additionalresources.html

Complete College America. (n.d.). Data dashboard. Retrieved from https://completecollege.org/data-dashboard/

Hassel, H., Klausman, J., Giordano, J. B., O’Rourke, M., Roberts, L., Sullivan, P., & Toth, C. (2015). TYCA white paper on developmental education reforms. Teaching English in the Two Year College, 42(3), 227-243.

Hussar, W. J., & Bailey, T. M. (February 2019). Projections of education statistics to 2027 (46th ed.). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, Washington D.C.