To assess? Or not to assess? What is the real question here?

As I pursued the proliteracy.com site, I was struck by one seemingly no-nonsense statement: their explanation of why literacy should be investigated. This issue is one that is, naturally, touched on throughout our work with the program, as well as through our individual research projects. However, reading the site’s overview as literacy as a “crisis,” I felt compelled to question the role of the SpeakOut program in the context of the larger literacy movement. How does our program contribute to literacy education? Are there any unique aspects of our program which may serve other programs well, if integrated? As stated on the site, literacy is of primary importance to:

…solve all of these socioeconomic problems and more, we must start by building a more literate adult population. Because when individuals the world over learn how to read, write, do basic math, and use computers, the more likely they are to lift themselves out of poverty, contribute to improved health care costs, and find and keep sustainable employment.

I do not mean to imply skepticism about the importance of literacy, but rather, whether or not SpeakOut is actually assisting in “building” a more literate population. Are the writers involved in the program actually becoming more literate? When considering the different types of literacy, for example prose, document, and quantitative literacies (National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) 1994*), I still see discrepancies in the skills of some of the writers involved, leading me to question the overall effectiveness of a literacy program that emphasizes only one specific aspect of literacy: that of prose. Although the writers are exposed to different forms of literature and styles of writing, I wonder if they are developing stronger skills or simply making use of those skills they already had.

So how can we actually track the development of reading and writing skills or the strengthening of current knowledge through participation in SpeakOut? Due to much of the writing being free-form and personal, I am curious as to the best way to evaluate the growth or development of literacy skills. Is it as simple as conducting a content analysis of each writers work? If so, what exactly do you look for in the writing as indicators of growth?

Although content analysis could be one useful tool for assessing the development of literate skills, program evaluations (conducted recently in our respective groups) could also be useful. In specific, questions relating to interest in additional writing sessions (i.e. How to write a resume, cover letter, writing a business letter, etc.) may glean insight into these various forms of literacy and the writers’ need or desire to learn such skills. In addition, the current question on the evaluation–“What did you learn about yourself as a writer?”–could possibly be adapted into a more in-depth self-evaluation for the purposes of having the writers explore their own development throughout the program. Many of the writers actually touch on this already in their reflections, noting particular areas they thought they improved on.

In sum, I think the current evaluations are an effective tool for assessment, however certain questions could be reformulated to allow more in-depth analysis of individual strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, it seems only appropriate to consider the work actually created throughout the semester, considering it is a writing workshop, after all. However, the issue of analyzing content becomes complex and problematic for me. In light of the myriad writing styles and levels of skill among the participating writers, how can we best assess the effectiveness of SpeakOut at promoting and “building” a more literate adult population?

*The following statistics were taken from the National Adult Literacy Survey (1994), conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Studies. Findings were compiled in a report entitled “Literacy Behind Prison Walls: Profiles of the Prison Population from the National Adult Literacy Survey.”

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