10. Visualizing Fairness

A Critique and Revision of Placement Practices for International ESL Students

Mapping as a tool for creating visual depictions of processes or practices is not new in writing studies, and metaphors related to mapping—locations, geographies, space, borders, frontiers, and other place-based concepts—have been duly explored. In perhaps the most comprehensive take, Nedra Reynolds’ Geographies of Writing (2004) explains the connections between locations, space, and power in her study of how cultural geography can inform the teaching of writing. Inspired by this and other work on mapping, this chapter explains an instance in my work as a WPA at a small, midwestern public liberal arts college in which I used mapping to think through a problem with the placement of international ESL students into appropriate writing courses. In mapping, or creating a visual—in this case, the decision tree in Figure 1—of the many steps, potential placements, and resulting courses students took, I identified, as Patricia Sullivan and James Porter (2000) suggest of mapping, “preferences, tendencies, and of course blind spots” (p. 99). In particular, I detected extra, unexamined steps in the placement process that resulted in unfair differences in the educational paths of and costs to international ESL students as compared to their domestic peers.

The decision tree at the center of this chapter also helped to identify pathways of communication on our campus that my colleagues and I leveraged to improve our placement practices. The changes themselves were based on best placement practices for ESL students (Ruecker, 2011; Crusan, 2012) and reflect a framework of fairness in writing assessment (Elliot, 2016). My decision tree also serves as an example of how mapping can serve WPAs, and by extension, our students, in meaningful ways.

Mapping in WPA Work

I am someone for whom a graphic depiction of a concept or process speaks volumes. If I’m having trouble explaining something verbally, I often first draw it, or in writing studies parlance, map it. I’m by no means an artist, but I often need to grab paper and a pencil or run to the whiteboard to figure something out. This need occurred in fall 2012, my second fall on the job as a WPA, when I noticed what I thought was an over-representation of international ESL students in our Basic Writing course, a hunch which I explain presently.

My own interest in and practice of mapping was in part influenced by Reynolds, as well as Patricia Sullivan and James Porter’s Opening Spaces (1997), which is inspired by Bordieu’s socially informed spatial mapping and Soja’s postmodern geographical methods that are “aware of the frame as frame” (p. 79). Sullivan and Porter suggest that maps help researchers stay alert to the fact that research methods and sites are human-made and therefore already political, never “neutral.” Mapping is suggested as a postmodern corrective to the modernist fixity of methodological rigor; mapping offers a tool to reveal the choices, biases, and omissions of researchers and their methods. By extension, I am suggesting that they do the same for “scenes” of assessment and placement.

Sullivan and Porter (1997) offer an explicit explanation for the use of maps or other visuals in thinking about studies of writing, but their work is not ground zero for using such visuals in the field; here, I am thinking of Kinneavy in the mid-century (p. 81) and further back in history, Austin’s Chironomia (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, p. 890). The variety and use of such visuals throughout time support what Sullivan and Porter suggest quite simply: drawing “pictures” can help thinking (1997, p. 79). Since the introduction of and subsequent debate around the terms “multiple intelligences” and “learning styles,” the notion that pictures can help one learn or think may be contested. Even so, mapping in WPA work has become a regular, accepted practice.

A recent good example can be found in Lancaster et al.’s (2015) study of mapping assessment networks, which is inspired by Latour’s Actor-network theory (ANT) to help WPAs gain “a sense of the shifting parameters of networks and the residual pathways of power and communication in them” (p. 96). In this case study, the authors undertook a process of mapping the historical circumstances that necessitated a five-year assessment project, then, over time, they re-mapped those circumstances as things changed at the university, such as pathways of communication and loci of power; finally, they noted where they could explore "the strength of weak ties," or relationships and occasions of communication that afforded the project more attention, allies, or resources (Lancaster et al., 2015, p. 107).

When drawing on Latour’s Actor-network theory, the concept of mapping is employed as a matter of course, asking the thinker to use locational imagery when “laying continuous connections leading from local interaction to other places, times, and agencies through which a local site is made to do something” (Latour 173 qtd in Lancaster et al. 96). In Lancaster et al.’s case, the sites or processes of assessment are mapped to productive effect with a general understanding that mapping can mean creating any kind of visual representation, such as their hub-and-spokes model.

I suggest that the visual I created to attend to the international ESL students’ placement bears out the claims of Porter and Sullivan and Lancaster et al. for political and material disruption via mapping quite well. In the following sections, I explain what the problem was for these international ESL students and how mapping the problem for my own benefit alerted me to unfairness in the placement practices for international ESL students. I thought what I created was convincing enough to eventually formalize into a visual I could use to explain the deficiencies in our practices to my colleagues, a move which worked in favor of rectifying institutional racism within our university on behalf of our international ESL students.

International ESL Students and Fairness

August 2012: My phone rings and my inbox dings simultaneously. The dean and director of advising are hailing me from the midst of placement testing at summer orientation. The message is urgent: Quick! We need to create more Basic Writing sections. Can you arrange classrooms and teachers today?

This is puzzling. The planned number of sections should be plenty; they are based on a pretty reliable historical percentage of the incoming class. Still, based on placement-testing results, more sections are needed, and the necessary schedule-shuffling and last minute hiring ensues. Once classes begin, it becomes clear to the instructors, of which I am one, that international ESL students from Nigeria, Cameroon, Jamaica, and other countries where they have spoken English dialects their whole lives constitute half of the students enrolled in Basic Writing. They are bright, motivated students with strong English proficiency. They are frustrated in Basic Writing. They have been, we have all come to believe, misplaced.

This is incongruous with the typical academic support our university offers international ESL and World English–speaking students, who make up about 10% of each incoming first-year class (University of Wisconsin-Superior, p. 3). In particular, an ESL program led by two specialists and comprised of four courses (on reading, writing, speaking, and listening) exists to support the students’ success, and our small cadre of writing instructors engage in professional development regarding the teaching and learning of international ESL students in mainstream first-year writing courses.

Because of our theoretically solid curricular and pedagogical setup for international ESL students, the misplacement of students caused us only short-term consternation, and it also prompted me to investigate more intently our institution’s placements procedures for international ESL students. Such an investigation was important to me because the misplacement affected only international ESL students, a population that constitutes many of the students of color on our small, midwestern campus. Our university actively recruits international ESL students, and I am moved by the advice of Crusan (2002), who writes that ESL and writing instructors should become “more involved in the assessments that affect [students’] lives, helping our ESL students to carve out a legitimate space for themselves at the university, a promise made to them by universities when touting much publicized diversity programs” (p. 27).

I saw this project as an antiracist and social justice imperative, one that may be characterized under Norbert Elliot’s (2016) heuristic for fairness in writing assessment, drawn on strategies of the Civil Right Movement. Elliot (2016) writes that this heuristic "is intended to get in the way of that which does harm. In the case of assessment, it is imperative to insist on explicit connections to the identification of opportunity structures leading to the advancement of opportunity to learn. When learning becomes the stated focus of assessment, opportunities arise to lessen educational inequalities" (p. 2).

Elliot's (2016) theory is materially rendered or applied to behavior or practices, such as assessment, as a series of four potential interventions in assessment design and process regarding fairness and transparency:

  • Consequential, creating assessments that are opportunities to learn
  • Contractarian, operationalizing the implicit social contract we have with students and recognizing the effects of our interventions
  • Communal, recognizing that the effects of our work extend outside of school and into the workplace, seeing ourselves as a piece in a continuum of care of students
  • Economic, using effectuation principles to imagine new value for assessment, such as learning more about how people write (p. 13)
One is meant to use the heuristic in planning stages, to judge and mitigate potential areas of unfairness or to question the purpose of assessment processes, practices, or decisions—and whom they might help or hurt, intentionally or not. While this framework predates my experience in 2012, it has become a useful tool for me as a WPA involved in assessment and placement, and it serves this chapter as a way to explain how the changes my colleagues and I made to our placement practices for international ESL students are conscious improvements that reflect an interest in treating students of color in particular fairly.

To that end, I believe that the changes in our placement practices reflect Elliot’s second and fourth interventions: First, as a contractarian move, we operationalized the implicit social contract we have with students to help them succeed in college in the US, and we recognized the unfair effects of our interventions. And, second, as an economic/effectuation move, we used the means we already had at our disposal. Our changes cost nothing and amount to improved communication and collaboration across units.

The Decision Tree

The decision tree should be read from left to right, beginning with the Admission column, where international ESL students encounter their first placement point: their TOEFL score, which grants admission to the University and which separates high- and low-scoring students into different testing pools. The high-scorers go up and to the right on the decision tree to take the State Placement Exam (SPE), a step comparable to domestic students, who take the ACT to gain admission and then take SPEs for writing, math, and/or a foreign language during orientation. The SPE exam is administered on each campus in our state system. There are few international students who do well enough on the TOEFL to take this path; and, when they do well on the TOEFL, they often also do well on this second standardized exam and place into the resulting mainstream Writing I course, continuing up and to the right on the tree. In some odd cases, similarly to domestic English-speaking students, a student does well enough to place into the more advanced class, Writing II, further to the right. This point of placement, TOEFL-to-SPE suggests few problems on the part of students, but it is the less well-trod path, given that many of our international ESL students are low-scorers on the TOEFL.

Low-scorers on the TOEFL head down and to the right, to their second point of placement, an in-house, writing-based assessment conducted by our University’s two ESL specialists, who read the students’ actual writing and sort out those students who would benefit from the ESL Writing course, further down and to the right. This serves as a bridge to the mainstream (and cross-cultural) Writing I the following semester, one more step to the right.

However, there is a crack through which some lower TOEFL scorers slip; this is represented by the red arrow leading up from the in-house exam to the SPE in the Orientation column. This arrow represents the case in which a student’s in-house exam is deemed above the level at which the ESL specialists would recommend them for ESL Writing. In this case, the student is returned to the pool of mainstream and mostly domestic students who take the SPE. Here is where concern arises: almost no international ESL student who wasn’t already a high TOEFL scorer does well enough on the SPE to be placed in the mainstream Writing I course. Instead, more often, the results of this exam place them down and to the right, into the red-circled Basic Writing. This is not an ideal placement for the international ESL student for two reasons.

The decision tree follows student placement according to the following columns based on chronology: admission, orientation, fall semester, spring semester, and another fall semester. On the left side of the decision tree is TOEFL granting admission, which leads to two possible paths in the orientation column, the state placement exam on top and the in-house essay exam administered by ESL specialists on the lover half. Students are placed into various courses depending on their performance on these exams.

Figure 1. Decision Tree illustrating points of placement and resulting writing courses for international ESL students.

The first reason is curricular and pedagogical: second language (L2) scholars have long distinguished between the needs of each group of students (Friedrich, 2006, p. 23; Silva, 1994, p. 39). It is not often that an international ESL student’s best option is Basic Writing at our institution, which is more appropriate for domestic students with low reading comprehension or learning disabilities and those needing improvement with student skills, such as time management and organization. In addition, while our Basic Writing instructors have some training in L2 issues, they are not ESL specialists.

The second reason is a matter of inequity: Placing lower-scoring TOEFL students into Basic Writing causes international ESL students to spend more time and money than necessary in what is, regrettably, a 000-level, 0-credit class, when the 3-credit, more pedagogically suitable ESL Writing class exists for similar supportive purposes. Worse still, this illogical process could never affect a domestic, English-speaking, majority white student—even those who had low ACT scores. There is no similar crack in the parallel process through which domestic students could slip.

Mapping and Solving the Problem

The previous explanation of the placement practices is a result of my re-reading our university policies and asking lots of questions of our ESL specialists. To sort the information I learned, I used mapping as a thinking strategy, hand-sketching out the placement process and various courses involved using arrows to represent the students’ paths over the semesters. My mapping resulted in the decision tree, which is a bit of a genre mash-up between diagram and flowchart. Although I am not adept at any graphic design programs, I felt the decision tree should be made more official than a hand drawing in order to appeal to my colleagues. I used Powerpoint to make the graphics, knowing that it allows its users to create and arrange shapes, lines, and text more easily than in Word. Although it may look somewhat rudimentary, using Powerpoint will appeal to WPAs like me for several reasons: I do not have or know how to use graphic design programs; it was available on my computer; I am familiar with it; and it afforded me the ability to make the shapes and linear representations characteristic of a decision tree. A Powerpoint slide is also ideal in size and shape for sharing with others, either within a slideshow, as a still image on the screen, or on a printout, all of which are common elements of meetings on my campus.

The creation of the decision tree sparked two ideas: First, it helped me literally see the structure and reality that international ESL students’ progression through this process was longer and less transparent than the domestic students’ experience. It became clear to me that having international ESL students take two placements tests that might contradict each other (i.e., low-scoring on the TOEFL but high-scoring on the in-house exam) and then solve that problem with another standardized test that we know low-scoring TOEFL students would fail was untenable. Those three red arrows represent the illogic and poor treatment of the international ESL students in energy, time, and cost of their education. My colleagues and I were motivated to change that.

Second, and this is where the connections between the visual, spatial, and political, as explained by Reynolds and Sullivan and Porter make their effects, the decision tree also reminded me that the placement practices constituted a material scene—students assembling in a certain room to take the exams—that has material effects. In the consideration of students’ material treatment during the procedures, questions arose such as “Where exactly do they take the exam?” and “Who enters the scores into the students’ records?” Tracking down the answers led us to a partner in institutional change I would not have imagined if I had not undertaken a visualization of the placement practices: the summer orientation staff.

Meeting with the orientation staff resulted in some new understandings about how placement worked, physically speaking. First, we learned that summer 2012 was the first time international students had attended orientation with the domestic students, a move we applaud for its inclusivity. But, it also resulted in orientation leaders giving broad directions to rooms full of students who, by rights, should have been offered differing options. For instance, if an international ESL student heard “you need to take the SPE” before they were moved to the location of the in-house essay exam, they might be placed in Basic Writing before they learned that they were eligible for ESL Writing. (That is what happened in 2012).

We also learned who, exactly, keeps track of all these placements: namely, the Student Support Office, an office in charge of tutoring, disability accommodations, and other supportive aspects. A single person in this office is responsible for translating each student’s placement score into an appropriate course number within their advising account, leading the student to simply register for that course. This one person also does the same task after the ESL specialists report the in-house exam results. This piece of information provided us with a realization. Here was the type of “weak tie” noted by Lancaster et al. (2015) that we could leverage: an otherwise mundane, ad hoc communication occasion that occurs during orientation between the ESL specialists and the Student Support Office. There were two such communication occasions to consider.

The first was the ESL specialists’ report—a simple one sent via email—to the Student Support Office about which students should be placed into ESL Writing after the in-house essay. In the report, we realized that rather than say nothing about the students who did not need the ESL Writing course, the ESL specialists could offer a recommendation for them to take Writing I. If the ESL specialists said nothing about them, the assumption was made that the students would be returned up via the red arrow to the SPE. Instead, this newly specific list would be sent to the Student Support Office, and the students would hence avoid an ill-fated journey to Basic Writing. This part of the process is represented on the decision tree by the green arrow from the in-house exam to Writing I.

The second communication occasion emerged a year after we began communicating the in-house essay results this way. By becoming more conversant in the orientation practices, we began to request to see the other list of international ESL students—those who were actually high TOEFL scorers who by rights should take the SPE with the domestic students. While many do just fine on the SPE, the ESL specialists could at least offer them the in-house exam, which might lead to placement into the more-appropriate ESL course or as simply, Writing I. This is not represented on the decision tree; it is only an ad hoc possibility. And, while it would increase the number of placement points for some students, taking the in-house exam after the SPE is an option, not an unfair mandate. Should the students choose to take the in-house exam, their placement is thus put into the hands of the ESL specialists and their contextual understanding of the ESL and writing course options. This change has persisted since 2013 and has become a routine at orientation.


As a new WPA in 2012, I was embarrassed and worried when I realized that our placement practices were systematically treating our international ESL students differently than their domestic peers. I was not sure how to alert my colleagues and begin a process of change without leveling an accusation of institutional racism against…everyone. I had seen this go wrongly before: as a graduate student, I helped to conduct a gateway assessment for an academic program that unwittingly rated L2 students’ work so far below domestic, English-speaking students that the assessment coordinator saw fit to gently problematize the results, suggesting the academic program consider the variety of international rhetorical practices that were in play in the students’ writing. These colleagues were indignant to what seemed to them accusations of racism and ended the project prematurely. So, I was cautious.

Reflecting on both of these instances and the process of creating my decision tree, I have learned that mapping can help WPAs detect and attend to instances of institutional racism in the realm of assessment and placement. Maps’ usefulness come in their creation, in the rendering of entities, processes, practices, methods, what have you, into visual forms that more clearly represent material and political aspects that have gone unnoticed. In this case, the unnoticeability of the students’ unfair treatment was sustained because our international ESL students were happy to accept any trial or tribulation to attend our university. We were not holding up our end of what Elliot would call a contractarian relationship, making good on the trust international students put in their teachers and university administrators.

My visualization of our byzantine placement practices diversified my perspective on the situation and highlighted the process’s material and mundane aspects, which held solutions. My colleagues and I found that attending to “gaps or fissures” enabled us to make changes in the placement procedures of ESL international students that satisfy us ethically (Porter et al. 631). The changes helped avert students from taking an extra placement exam that domestic, mostly white students do not and that might have resulted in them taking an extra course on a technicality. The changes are small, but, to me, feel important in terms of the costs of higher education and in terms of fair writing program administration.


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