The quizzes, multiple-choice tests, and midterm and final exams that many higher education faculty rely on to assess student learning can be less than inclusive for some students by, for example, not incorporating real-world context. As educators move toward more equity-centered teaching, they are exploring the possibilities of equity-minded assessment for reducing barriers to equity for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and poverty-affected students.
H. Ray Keith, Program Development Consultant at Achieving the Dream, recently facilitated a digital justice learning circle on equity-minded assessment, in which participants explored their teaching and assessment practices through a culturally responsive and equity-minded lens. “We had participants think about how their current assessment practices aligned with equity-minded teaching goals,” Keith explains.
“And we helped them understand how assessment can support a broader definition of student success — to think about what we assess, and why and then how we empower students to take ownership and advance their own learning.”
Equity-minded assessment emphasizes creativity
When it comes to creating more equity-minded assessments for students, Keith says we should focus on the top tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Originally created in 1956, Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives provides a general learning framework for teachers. The original model (updated many times over the years by other learning researchers) places remembering and recalling facts and basic concepts at the foundation and creation of new or original work based on that learning at the top.
The lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy are remember and understand, which Keith says focus on memorization and understanding factual information. “For many students that might not be the best way for them to demonstrate what they’ve learned and how they’re applying what they’re learning,” he says.
However, if you start with the creation section at the top of the pyramid, he adds, “we start talking about how students are now applying the information that they’ve learned. Can they apply it when they are analyzing, evaluating, and creating, which leads to and demonstrates higher order thinking?”
By flipping the focus of Bloom’s Taxonomy, equity-minded assessment emphasizes educators giving students an opportunity to develop, create, and lead their own assessments. This could be through group presentations, project-based assessments, poster boards, and/or visual and artistic demonstrations.
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Keith gives the example of an English department at a college that offered multiple assessment options to students. While some students chose to write a paper about what they learned, others could opt to develop a video, podcast, or digital journal instead.
“The critical thinking piece is happening at the highest level when you give students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning in those ways,” he adds.
Giving students ownership
While educators may be on board with equity-minded assessments, students used to conventional multiple-choice exams may at first be wary about this type of evaluation. How can teachers empower students with this opportunity?
Firstly, Keith says it begins with curriculum and course content that is culturally responsive. “Is it incorporating diverse perspectives, diverse identities within the content that’s being shared?” he explains. “Are students able to see themselves in the course curriculum?”
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From there, Keith advises educators to be transparent about their expectations for students in the assessment process. “Create a space where students come in knowing they’re going to be co-constructing knowledge, even co-constructing assessment,” he says.
“Have that transparent conversation that we want to hear about your prior knowledge, we want you to bring in your own lived experiences. And then help students understand that yes, there are diverse ways they express their understanding of knowledge.”
Keith gives an example of the assessment process he observed for two different sections of the same course. The instructor assigned the same reading as homework to both sections. The first section used a five-question written quiz to evaluate if students had done the reading and what they had learned.
Keith recalls seeing students unable to answer questions becoming visibly deflated as they were asked to demonstrate knowledge through this traditional method of assessment. “The energy level just changed immediately,” he reports. “Students didn’t typically engage very much after that. In the rest of that session students were not highly motivated.”
In the second section, instead of a written quiz, the instructor invited students to come up to the whiteboard to answer the questions. Some students wrote one-sentence answers while others wrote longer answers. Once everyone finished, the instructor allowed those who wrote shorter answers to verbally add on to their answers. This, Keith says, allowed students to start discussions among themselves about what they had learned.
“The energy level was amazing,” he adds. “Through this process students were co-constructing knowledge as they engaged in this equity-minded approach to assessment. Because the assessment was engaging, innovative, and took a collectivism stance, I am not sure students felt they were being assessed.”
Make assessment part of the big picture
In addition to empowering students to take ownership and advance their own learning, equity-minded assessments also help colleges and universities emphasize student care. Keith says when teachers offer equity-minded and culturally responsive assessments, they provide opportunities for students to demonstrate learning in ways that are meaningful to them, affirming and validating students and their learning.
Additionally, student-centered evaluations and surveys provide data that can inform ways to improve DFWI rates. “Equity-minded practices and culturally responsive teaching and learning definitely can have positive outcomes for those students and really shrink those DFWI rates,” Keith says.
For example, when students withdraw from a course, Keith says an institution should find out if it is because of the experience they’re having in the course or other factors. “Consideration should be given to how we can shift teaching and learning practices so that students are experiencing that course through a culturally responsive lens, or even a race-conscious lens,” he adds.
All in all, Keith says equity-minded assessment is one piece of the overall picture of ensuring educators are teaching in a way that is culturally responsive and engaging for students. “If we’re intentional about that and interrogate teaching practices, it changes the culture in the classroom,” he says. “We begin to see that equity gaps can be closed when you’re being intentional about incorporating culturally responsive practices into your teaching and learning.”
Read more about assessment in the Caring For Students Playbook