by David Ruff
In a perfect world, an employee would be promoted at work due to a fair and honest appraisal of their capacity. Unfortunately, in a world that struggles with inequity of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc., such promotions are frequently based on or at least influenced by realities beyond the employee’s capacity. Recognizing that these same inequities routinely exist in our schools, educators often resort to common assessment tasks as a strategy to promote equity—only to find that doing so often accomplishes the opposite.
How so? When students are expected to engage in common assessments in the same way to produce the same evidence, this fails to recognize the variety of learning strategies effectively employed by different students. Expecting and supporting all students to learn a common core of skills and knowledge is an equity stance; expecting them to demonstrate this learning in exactly the same ways is not.
But assessments don’t have to be inequitable by nature. By changing the way we view assessments and broadening the scope of acceptable evidence, we can address inequities in the classroom while also radically increasing student engagement and agency.
Here are four ways to make it happen:
- Clarify student learning expectations. It isn’t enough to say that we want all students to become readers; we need to get more specific. What reading skills are we talking about? Should we consider various types of reading? Does skimming a text count? Should students not only understand overt intentions of the text but also more nuanced messages? Do we include poetry? With every larger learning standard, there are a host of specific standards (or performance indicators) that need to be identified. That way, students will know exactly what skills they will be expected to know and demonstrate.
- Collaboratively develop scoring criteria. Most people would agree that students should learn to write ‘well’; however, we could debate the meaning of ‘well’ for days. Left unresolved, this discrepancy has profound equity implications. For example, two educators teaching the same class might set different levels of acceptable performance. The result: A student in one class may be judged differently than a student in the other. This practice—often imperceptible to teachers—not only condones inequity but actually encourages it. The solution is for educators to collaboratively develop—and then use with fidelity—task-neutral scoring criteria. Developing scoring criteria and providing teachers time to collaboratively review and score student work for consistency ensures that grades aren’t influenced by who students are or whose class they’re taking—a basic requirement for equity.
- Develop assessment models. Instead of skipping straight to the development of assessment tasks, educators may want to consider developing assessment task models. Assessment task models are typically void of specific content. For example, instead of listing a series of specific historical events that students must compare and contrast, a task model might note the need for students to compare and contrast historical events, but allows students to choose what events specifically. This seemingly minor shift has huge implications. For example, the student who is fascinated by the Great Depression may dig further into three related events during the 1930s. Another student may be fascinated by the civil rights movement and choose to further explore events from the 1960s. In both cases, the student can use different content to demonstrate their capacity to compare and contrast historical events—and in both cases, the student has gained agency over their learning. Check out some examples of assessment models.
- Accept evidence generated outside of assessment tasks. While many students will welcome the guidance offered through a common assessment task (built from the assessment task model noted above), some students will learn more deeply through other strategies. We need to be open to students designing different ways to gather evidence that demonstrates their capacity. With clear task-neutral scoring criteria, we can entertain these ideas, ensure consistency in scoring, and maintain our commitment to equity. For example, a teacher might design an assessment task regarding public speaking where each student presents a PechaKucha to their classmates. Meanwhile, potentially unknown to the teacher, one of her students has the opportunity to present a proposed change regarding a public policy to their local planning commission—and does so quite successfully. The same task-neutral scoring criteria could be used to measure the student’s presentation skills in each situation even though the context is different.