Equity & Assessment Resources

One of the challenges facing institutions of higher education today is how to deal with issues of equity.  At ACC, addressing the needs of a diverse student body, staff, and faculty are integrated into the college’s strategic plan. But what is equity? And more specifically, how does it relate to assessment?

In addressing equity concerns, one must be ever mindful of implicit biases. To quote Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk, “One of the keys to wisdom is that we must recognize our own biases, our own addictive preoccupations, and those things to which, for some reason, we refuse to pay attention. Until we see these patterns . . ., we will never be able to see what we do not see.”  His Center for Action and Contemplation has an excellent summary about recognizing biases many of which we are not even aware that we hold.

ACC was fortunate to have Erick Montenegro, a leading researcher on equity in assessment, make a presentation in April, 2020, to the Teaching & Learning Academy. Entitled Meeting the Challenges of a New Decade through Equity-Minded Assessment, the presentation focused on culturally responsive approaches to assessing our students and using that information in ways that promote our students’ success rather than continue inequities. View a brief summary of the Equity-Minded Assessment presentation.

In April 2022, the Teaching & Learning Academy invited another leading light in this area, Dr. Gavin Henning of New England College, to talk about implementing equity-centered assessment

Dr. Henning has compiled a rich collection of resources on this topic. Direct links to a few of the more comprehensive papers are also provided.


The terms diversity, equality, and equity are closely related, but have somewhat different meanings.

Diversity: The degree to which an institution, program, or other organization is comprised of individuals with a variety of backgrounds and characteristics (i.e., ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, etc.).

Equality: The treatment of all individuals in a comparable, non-discriminatory manner, providing the same opportunities and resources for all.

While admirable in and of itself, a focus on equality often fails to consider cultural biases, many of which have been in place for centuries, and ignores the way in which such practices create hurdles for those of traditionally marginalized populations.

Equity: Equity is the provision of resources and support to individuals as needed to ensure not only access to opportunities but the readiness to take advantage of those opportunities to achieve success.

In an equitable situation, such as students studying in a particular program, any individual has just as much likelihood of success as any other. Any differences in their performance are entirely due to factors over which the students have control. An analysis of their performance that disaggregates the data by race, gender, or any other parameter would show no consistent pattern.

Those practices that help students achieve equitable outcomes are those that help all students. Equitable assessments allow for diverse ways of demonstrating that achievement. Some of these include (Montenegro & Jankowski, 2017; Suskie, 2018, Wright, 2017; Feldman, 2019):

  • Using rubrics: We all have implicit biases. But creating a rubric helps us to establish (mostly) objective criteria by which we can score a student’s performance. A common rubric also helps to promote consistency between faculty scoring the same assignment in different sections, and empowers students by affirming that anyone who meets the standards will succeed. A shared rubric also allows the same standards to be applied to different works, which can allow for cultural variations in demonstrating learning. For example, the Drama department uses a rubric to assess students critical analysis of a play. In doing so, the student may use any theatrical performance from a variety of cultural perspectives, but be assured that it will be scored consistently across the class.
  • Portfolios: By providing a broad cross-section of the student’s work, a portfolio evens out the cultural biases that might be introduced by different assignments and offers a more holistic assessment of a student’s learning achievement.
  • Tell ‘Em What You’re Going to Teach ‘Em: Share with your students the rubrics and expectations you have for them. Don’t assume that they will somehow know. For example, if you ask students to write a research paper, don’t assume that they have the information literacy skills to distinguish the New York Times from the New York Post, or that they know to dig deeper than Wikipedia. Sharing the rubric with them that will be used to evaluate their performance is one of the best ways to do this.
  • Discovery-based learning: Hands-on approaches to learning lets students explore situations and problems in a manner that is collaborative and relatively unconstrained. While the faculty have to define the problem and set certain guidelines, the self-directed nature of such assessments tends to make them more culturally responsive.
  • Inclusion: Having students themselves help to define the outcomes, the assessment, and how it is evaluated is another equitable approach. The process is empowering and creates a sense of buy-in, and by its nature is culturally responsive. Moreover, it provides the students some insight into the challenges of assessment and the value of the learning outcomes.
  • Academic Autobiographies: Have students fill out a brief questionnaire at the beginning of the semester describing their academic experiences and self-identifying any concerns they have and struggles they have experienced. This can provide a sense of how students see themselves in an academic setting and provide information on how to better support them in their learning.
  • Blind-scoring: Individuals perceived as being from certain demographic groups are often evaluated differently, even when the evaluators believe that they are not doing so. This may not be entirely possible with small sections because we get to know our students well, but is an equitable practice nonetheless.
  • Equitable grading: Traditional approaches to grading are fraught with problems. The scoring of student work must be done in a way that is mathematically appropriate and accurate, bias-resistant, and (ideally) motivational. 

Obviously, not all of the assessment approaches mentioned here are appropriate for every assignment or discipline. But we, as faculty, should always be wary of our own implicit biases and be mindful of the challenges posed by our students’ cultural differences.

To compensate for cultural biases and the societal inequities they create for members of traditionally marginalized populations, resources are directed towards individuals to provide intentional support as appropriate. Achieving equity requires an awareness of different cultural perspectives and the experiences of members of other groups.

View this Equity in Assessment summary for more detailed background about equity in assessment.

Additional excellent references:

Feldman, J., 2019, Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Corwin, 266 p.

Montenegro, E. & Jankowski, N., 2017, Equity & Assessment: Moving Towards Culturally Responsive Assessment (Occasional Paper No. 29). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

Suskie, L., 2018, Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide. John Wiley & Sons, 386 p.

Wright, M., (2017, May). Steps in the Right Direction: Additional Strategies for Fostering Culturally Responsive Assessment (Equity Response). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

View a more comprehensive listing of relevant assessment references on the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment website.

Trigger Warnings, Content Advisories, and Alternative Assessments

Another topic regarding inclusion and sensitivity are trigger warnings or content advisories. Our own Dr. Sarah Bowman has written an essay about trigger warnings, with guidance on handling curricula to which some students might have a strong reaction because of having suffered a traumatic experience.

Assessment During the Pandemic

As the college has made the wrenching transition to remote teaching, faculty have also had to change how they measure the extent to which their students have learned the curriculum. Such changes have raised concerns about equity and effectiveness, concerns for which there are no easy answers. Fortunately, Erick Montenegro at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment has put together a valuable collection of resources relating to online learning. This Assessment During a Pandemic summary provides an overview of some of these issues and how best to approach them. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Discipline Assessment Cycle (DAC), and how it ties into TracDat, please access the manual here.

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