Using Assessment to Support Equity

Topics: Assessment and Evaluation, Equity and Diversity

Left unchecked, implicit bias in assessment can have a devastating impact on individual students and school culture. Individual students can be left feeling “less than” their peers unnecessarily, and the school culture can inadvertently “otherize” students who don’t demonstrate learning in alignment with a narrow view of what success looks like.

All people have biases, says “How to Think About ‘Implicit Bias,’ ” a 2018 article in Scientific American. Some biases are intentional, explicit, and relatively inconsequential: We might have a favorite sports team, restaurant, or musician. These are tendencies or leanings toward that which a person deems favorable. But some biases are implicit, and research on implicit bias suggests that “people can act on the basis of prejudice and stereotypes without intending to do so,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

This means educators must purposefully interrogate their practices to surface any possibility that could negatively impact certain cohorts of students. There is, of course, implicit bias that negatively impacts Black, brown, and Indigenous learners, but there is also the implicit bias that negatively impacts any learner whose strengths don’t align with what is traditionally thought to be valid evidence of learning.

The first step toward mitigating bias in assessment is to admit its existence. This is not an admission of malicious intent, but people might not like to admit to something that sounds so detrimental. And yet it is the only way educators can ensure the most inclusive assessment culture in a classroom or a school, because by admitting bias, educators—ideally as a whole school or district—can go about the business of neutralizing, or at least minimizing, its impact to get an authentic “read” of student performance.

Where There Is Judgment

Most current curricular standards require assessment decisions that go beyond right vs. wrong. Even in the case of a right-or-wrong determination, the type of error can distinguish the degree of wrong revealed. Sophisticated demonstrations of learning, however, require teachers to use their professional judgment to infer quality—and where there is judgment, bias can easily occur unless a teacher or school is intentional about addressing it proactively.

Current curricular standards are more open-ended, giving teachers and students more choice in assessment formats. Assessment methods are not interchangeable, since accuracy in assessment is the result of the method matching the standard, according to Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right—Using It Well.

Once the right method is determined (e.g., constructed response) teachers have the freedom to choose the format (e.g., written response, oral presentation, recording). This freedom is not always exercised to its fullest capacity; every teacher knows how easy it is to lean on their preferred formats. This would allow another vulnerability to bias to emerge—namely the choice of format, which inevitably leads to a narrowing of options for students to show what they know.

Cultural Archetypes

One way to mitigate the implicit bias that encompasses assessment format choices is to use cultural archetypes to create some balance. In her 2015 book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond recommends using cultural archetypes to create an inclusive environment without feeling overwhelmed by the daunting task of being responsive to the idiosyncrasies of every culture in the school. By balancing cultural archetypes, teachers can create an authentically inclusive assessment context.

The cultural archetypes can be found along two continuums. First, there are cultures that emphasize the importance of the individual and prioritize individuals’ achievements, and there are those that are more emphatic about the collective and prioritize collective achievement and relationships. Then there are cultures that favor the written tradition while others honor the oral tradition. By intentionally putting the four combinations together when deciding on assessment formats, teachers can be culturally responsive in their approach to assessment.

Culturally Responsive Assessment

First, it must be acknowledged that something as complex as cultural responsiveness can be oversimplified when conceptualized with a framework. Cultural nuances matter, so the disclaimer here is that it is critical for educators to pay close attention to how their students respond to any attempts to be culturally responsive. Any clinical application of an inclusive assessment model must take a backseat to being attentive to how learners respond to that model; assumptions about individual students based solely on culture might be just as detrimental and potentially tokenizing.

That said, by combining the archetypes, a school can create an inclusive assessment paradigm that is as expansive as possible. Reflecting on the four combinations, one can see how skewed the traditional assessment paradigm has been. By almost exclusively emphasizing the individual and written traditions, schools have ignored or marginalized three-quarters of the possibilities. And the Eurocentric roots of that traditional emphasis in assessment is in sharp contrast to the cultural diversity that exists in schools today.

Figure 1 outlines the four potential combinations and provides some guidelines for approaching assessment. The idea is not necessarily to have an equal distribution among the four combinations; teachers will still need to be attentive to the cognitive complexity of the standards and the most favorable assessment method and format for that standard and for their students.

By purposefully looking to diversify the approach to assessment, teachers will find ways to be more culturally responsive and expansive. The important thing to remember is fit, not force: You don’t want to force assessment into all four quadrants; instead, be open to the possibilities when they emerge authentically.

The one aspect sure to garner the most controversy or generate the most debate is any emphasis on the collective result, especially when it comes to summative assessment (i.e., grading). The conventional wisdom is that regardless of assessment strategy or format, an individual student’s grades must be determined solely by the individual student’s results—that there be no group grade for fear one student disproportionately carries the group, allowing others to benefit from someone else’s contribution. This needs to be rethought for two reasons:

Collaboration is seen as a critical competency for the 21st century. As schools emphasize the development of critical competencies in learners, there must be a meaningful place for some collective results within an individual student’s achievement report. That’s not to say that all results will be collective, because some (reading level, for example) would need to remain with the individual exclusively. Collaboration is as much a social interaction as it is an academic one, however; those with whom students collaborate and how they collaborate will affect the result. Until students truly need to rely on one another in a substantive way, the emphasis on collaboration as an essential critical competency will be superficial and tangential—a demonstration of cooperation.

Assessment should be responsive to the cultural archetype of the collective. Until the collective is emphasized in substantive ways, the message will be that some cultures don’t matter as much as others. In some cultures, contributing to the collective is what life is all about, so to reduce the collective to a superficial, on-occasion occurrence is to marginalize certain cultures. Students being truly reliant on one another for a meaningful and important outcome is the only way to uplift cultures that emphasize this archetype.

Eliminating Bias Through Rubrics

One inarguable point to emerge from the research on grading over the past century is that grades based on fewer distinct levels that clearly articulate success criteria are more reliable (i.e., more consistent among teachers) than a 0–100 scale, according to 2019’s What We Know About Grading: What Works, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next. In other words, not only are rubrics more reliable for grading, but they are also a way to almost eliminate implicit bias in assessment.

David Quinn’s research says that “racial stereotypes can influence the scores teachers assign to student work. But stereotypes seem to have less influence on teachers’ evaluations when specific grading criteria are established in advance.” His grading experiment found that “when teachers evaluated student writing using a general grade-level scale, they were 4.7 percent more likely to consider the white child’s writing at or above grade level compared to identical writing from a Black child. But when teachers used a grading rubric with specific criteria, the grades were essentially the same.” Factors of sample size or training in rubric use might make the localized application of Quinn’s research challenging, but common sense suggests that when criteria are predetermined and clearly articulated, teachers are less susceptible to implicit bias.

A student’s grade should never be dependent upon who their teacher is, especially when teaching to one set of state standards set at a particular level of cognitive complexity. By using rubrics, teachers can almost eliminate implicit bias within their classrooms and ensure reliability among colleagues who teach the same grade-level subject. While nothing is automatic, teachers who calibrate using student samples will begin to align scoring inferences to neutralize any atypical deviations in the interpretation of the criteria.

Acknowledging implicit bias is the first step to mitigating it. This bias can exist in the choices teachers make about assessment methods and formats, as well as in the judgment of the way students demonstrate knowledge. Intentionality is the key: Bring the issue to the forefront in a non-accusatory way, have each teacher reflect on potential biases that could influence assessment decisions, and methodically do the work of creating the most expansive and responsive assessment environment possible.

Tom Schimmer is an education speaker, consultant, and author of numerous books including Concise Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Assessment and Grading From the Inside Out.