Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Michael M. Williamson, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Gloria Park, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Patrick A. Bizzaro, Ph.D.


The topic of this study is the validity of college composition placement decisions, particularly the decision to place incoming students into Basic Writing (BW), the lower level English composition course, at a western Pennsylvania university. Validity is the study of the quality of decisions made in educational assessment, and current validity theory says that in order to validate placement (or any assessment) programs, one must investigate all possible evidence both for and against the decisions made, searching not only for evidence of the intended consequences but also searching for unintended negative social consequences that may outweigh the benefits of placement decisions, posing threats to a program's validity. My review of college composition placement validation literature reveals that few studies make attempts to both (a) refute counter-arguments for a program's validity and (b) to weigh an investigation of social consequences into the validity argument. The purpose of this study is to apply these two major imperatives of current validity theory to a validation study of the University of the Western Atlantic's (UWA, a pseudonym) placement program. In order to tap into data sources that might reveal counter-arguments and issues of social consequences, I suggest that a phenomenological framework must be employed, because only through a critical inquiry into BW students' lived experience of their placement can a researcher fully make the argument for or against the validity of the placement decisions. A careful reading of validity theory literature shows that data regarding the lived experience of the students affected by the placement decision is theoretically supported. This study will attempt to answer that call by reporting findings from series of unstructured interviews with BW students over the course of their semester in the class. Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) will be the primary analytical tool used to reveal both personal and societal issues that reside in the recorded interviews. By reporting themes that emerge from this qualitative research, this study hopes to provide information key to the ongoing validation of UWA's placement program, and to serve as a model for a type of investigation crucial to any placement program's validation.