How You Can Use Assessment to Strive Toward Equity in Higher Education

More attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is needed within higher education.

We need to develop more awareness and reframe our perspectives to think from a lens that centers equity. We have the power to further inquire, examine, and intervene to move toward equitable outcomes for students.

Assessment can be one way to do so. Data can inform us of gaps or areas to focus on for improvement. And, when paired with student demographic information, assessment data can identify inequitable experiences occurring among students. 

With a more intentional approach, assessment can be a mechanism to further educational equity for students. But before getting into actionable steps or recommendations, let’s establish some key terminology.

Key Concepts

For purposes of this blog, I will present some key concepts with a working definition in relation to assessment. Any and all of these terms have considerable research and scholarship on them; I’ve linked a few below if you’d like to learn more. 

Equity

Equity is justice according to needs and fairness. It goes beyond equality in which everyone is treated the same.

In order to help all students achieve equivalent learning outcomes, more support and different conditions may be required for some students compared to others  — in light of systematic barriers and experienced disadvantages. Equity isn’t about a one-size-fits-all approach; to be equitable in our work, we must serve the students where they are according to their needs.

'Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.' - Rick Riordan

Agency

Agency is the ability to exercise will and power to act purposefully toward goals. Agency pertains to the ability to act; while everyone has will and could act, it’s often a matter of space created, empowerment, and self-motivation that determine if agency will be employed or enacted.

Our students have great potential for agency beyond what they’re typically afforded. Faculty, staff, and administrators could exponentially enable student agency via the inclusion of students as co-collaborators and advocates for institutional action.

Bias

Bias refers to conscious and unconscious favors and influences for or against someone or something.

Bias should be a familiar term to you already, but I want to point out that bias is not always positive or negative. Someone can be biased toward all students having access to higher education just as someone else can be biased toward prohibiting access to certain students based on their identities.

It’s also important to recognize bias that is unconscious. We may not be aware of the biases we display or demonstrate in our thoughts and actions.

Positionality

Positionality is how identity (including role and status) can shape, influence, or bias one’s perspective.

Positionality means that our identities and experiences influence the way we view our world and move through it. Positionality can encompass (and even be a starting point to) identifying and unpacking our biases.

Methodological diversity

Methodological diversity pertains to using multiple forms of measurement to capture diverse ways of knowing. The term can be a mouthful, but the most important thing to realize is that methodological diversity is about two things: Using multiple measures or methods for measurement and capturing learning in different ways (such as qualitative vs quantitative or direct vs indirect).

Equitable Assessment

There are many ways in which equity considerations can shape assessment practices and assessment can advance equity work. So next, let’s explore how agency, bias, positionality, and methodological diversity can be infused into each phase of a typical assessment cycle.  

Outcome articulation

Agency is prevalent at this stage of an assessment cycle given the opportunity to invite and involve students.

Let’s make students more than just the subjects of our studies. Let’s also make them collaborators and co-creators in the learning process. Doing so can help showcase that we’re student-centered and help students understand how they can benefit from engaging in campus life.

Planning

Bias and positionality can be accounted for at this stage by inviting coworkers and students with perspectives different from your own to review your plan.

Given that assessment answers and evidences questions that need answers, isn’t it worth examining whose questions are we answering? Consider: Whose experiences are not being examined? Understanding the perspectives of colleagues who serve your students in different capacities can help you answer these questions.

'Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as creating the same things differently.' - Kimberlé Crenshaw

Data collection

As I mentioned before, methodological diversity is a way to capture multiple ways of knowing through multiple methods.

Doing so can enable data triangulation to help provide a more complete picture of trends within student learning. We need to treat data as part of a system, not silos of insight. As such, looking to employ multiple methods to measure outcomes can help us to more accurately capture the reality of our students’ experiences.

Data analysis and reporting

As with the planning phase, positionality and biases should be also recognized in this meaning-making part of the assessment cycle.

We should again be thinking about the voices and perspectives that are included and excluded in relation to relevant audiences for the work — such as, students, staff, and faculty. When we only focus on the overall or average, we risk masking the margins and teaching to the middle. Disaggregated data helps uncover unequal outcomes, wherein  — according to Estela Mara Bensimon — collaborative dialog can make the undiscussable discussable.

Taking Action

Just as it helps to include students in co-creating outcome language, there is tremendous power in promoting agency within assessment action.

Invite and involve students, faculty, and staff as collaborators. All assessments could stand to have more actions and use of the results (which includes sharing with targeted audiences). With equity in mind, go back to your reflections — about inclusion, perspectives, centering students on the margins, and making data disaggregation the norm.

We don’t want to over-treat populations by rolling out interventions to all when only a fraction of our students need it. Leverage identity or experience specificity in order to act toward improvements.

While there are many other elements to advance equity that could occur at each stage, hopefully, the above examples are understandable, relatable, and feasible to act upon.

Furthermore, you might think infusing equity in assessment seems like additional work or takes away from productive assessment practices at your institution, but I’d point to the natural relationship equity has with assessment given the Principles of Good Assessment Practice for Assessing Student Learning

  • Principle 1: The assessment of student learning begins with educational values. 
  • Principle 6: Assessment fosters wider improvement when representatives from across the educational community are involved.
  • Principle 7: Assessment makes a difference when it begins with issues of use and illuminates questions that people really care about. 
  • Principle 8:  Assessment is most likely to lead to improvement when it is part of a larger set of conditions that promote change.
  • Principle 9: Through assessment, educators meet responsibilities to students and to the public.

Final Thoughts

Equity work, much like assessment, should be continuous. Even when students are experiencing equivalent learning outcomes and success, efforts need to be maintained to sustain equity. 

There’s a lot of personal journeys we need to embark on, within both our personal and professional lives, in order to best support our students. We can go farther and faster when we work together… and we need to work together to ensure we are minimizing biases and using our positionalities in the best ways possible.

We have a responsibility to assess with a diversity of students in mind. So, let’s do the uncomfortable but necessary work.

Here are a few reflection questions you can pose to yourself and your colleagues:

  • Who are our students?
  • What differences exist in how our students are learning and experiencing higher education?
  • Where are there breakdowns in student experiences? (Possibilities include over and under involvement, stop-out points, burn out, and disengagement.)

And here are a few questions to spark and inform conversations with students: 

  • What differences exist in how you, as students, learn and experience life and learning at this institution?
  • What have been impactful experiences (positive or negative) in your institutional journey?
  • How would you like to be more active, engaged, and empowered in your learning experience?
  • What can staff and faculty do better to meet every students’ needs?
  • What additional representation of perspectives and identities would you like to see at our institution?
  • How can we further amplify your voices and needs?

You’ll likely have your own campus cultural needs that’ll shape what to ask here, but hopefully, you understand the value of incorporating diverse perspectives and hearing directly from your students as you engage in all sorts of equity work.

'Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.' - James Baldwin

Remember: All of our students matter. We have to acknowledge that society is underserving and disadvantaging some students, which impacts their ability to succeed in college. We owe it to our students to dig deeper than focusing on averages and treating the student body as a single group. A one-size-fits-all solution for support is not enough.

What questions do you still have about equity in assessment? Connect with us @HelloPresence and @JoeBooksLevy.

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Joe Levy

About the author: Joe Levy is the Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation at National Louis University. Joe is passionate about data-informed decision making, accountability, and promoting a student-centered approach inside and outside of the classroom. Follow him on Twitter @JoeBooksLevy! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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