Equity in Assessment

Conversations around equitable assessment have rapidly expanded in recent years. This 2017 report from NILOA (the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment) discusses equity in assessment through the lens of culturally responsive assessment. They define culture as “(1) the explicit elements that makes people identifiable to a specific group(s) including behaviors, practices, customs, roles, attitudes, appearance, expressions of identity, language, housing region, heritage, race/ethnicity, rituals, religion; (2) the implicit elements that combine a group of people which include their beliefs, values, ethics, gender identity, sexual orientation, common experiences (e.g. military veterans and foster children), social identity; and (3) cognitive elements or the ways that the lived experiences of a group of people affect their acquisition of knowledge, behavior, cognition, communication, expression of knowledge, perceptions of self and others, work ethic, collaboration, and so on.” They then go on to describe culturally responsive assessment as “assessment that is mindful of the student populations the institution serves, using language that is appropriate for all students when developing learning outcomes, acknowledging students’ differences in the planning phases of an assessment effort, developing and/or using assessment tools that are appropriate for different students, and being intentional in using assessment results to improve learning for all students.” The paper details the following principles associated with culturally responsive assessment:

  • Students should be involved in the development of learning outcomes statements, as these statements are ultimately for students, not faculty, to guide their learning and help them understand departmental/program/course expectations. Because learning outcomes statements inform curricular design, teaching, and assessment, it is essential to be mindful of how the language of these statements might include or exclude certain groups of students. Involving students in their creation helps to ensure the statements are clear, terms are explicitly defined, and the outcomes account for different ways of learning or demonstrating learning.
  • Assessments should provide students with multiple means of demonstrating their learning. Some examples include:
    1. Rubrics developed with a culturally responsive lens, involving students in the design process
    2. Capstone courses or projects, which give students more agency over the learning experience
    3. Portfolios, which allow students to provide a more holistic representation of their learning
  • When preparing to use assessment results, disaggregation of data (including breaking down umbrella groupings such as “students of color” when possible) is essential for uncovering disparities between particular groups of students. It is especially important to examine and address processes that may be reproducing these disparities. Additionally, faculty and staff must be aware of their own potential biases when interpreting assessment results and setting expectations/defining norms for student performance.

Assessment During COVID-19

In August 2020, NILOA released a report describing the results of a survey of higher ed institutions focused on changes to assessment practices implemented in response to COVID-19. At the end of the report, NILOA offers the following list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” to guide thinking around assessment during a global pandemic:


  1. Do not forget that we are in a pandemic. Still. Do not forget that it is also an inequitable pandemic.
  2. Do not cause further harm. Do not support, enable, or endorse policies that perpetuate further inequities or fuel negative perceptions of students.
  3. Do not ask students for their approval of a decision that has already been made. Instead, engage with them in advance to help determine a solution.
  4. Do not require a higher-level of proof of learning in an online class than you would normally require in a face-to-face setting.
  5. Do not forget that this is not the educational experience students wanted or expected. Nor is this a test of online education. And in case you were wondering, it still will not be “online education” in the Fall. It will continue to be a derivative of emergency remote teaching and learning.


  1. Do use learning outcomes as a guide and means to design and focus educational offerings.
  2. Do listen to student voices AND respond accordingly.
  3. Do modify assignments and assessments in ways that are flexible, utilize low-bandwidth, and are based in the principles of equitable assessment.
  4. Do be aware of and address systemic inequities.
  5. Do engage in trauma-informed and healing-centered pedagogy and assessment.

Equity-Minded Assessment Video

Kelsey Thompson, Assistant Director of Assessment, in collaboration with Steve McKelvey, Faculty Director of Assessment, and two assessment colleagues (Vanessa Preast at Grinnell College and Nancy Bostrom at Macalester College), developed a presentation on equity-minded assessment during the 2021-22 academic year. The presentation provides an overview of equity-minded assessment and gives some examples for putting these principles into practice. View the 23-minute video on YouTube here.

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