Dr Pauline Hanesworth - Senior Adviser at Advance HE - discusses the future of assessment in higher education and how inclusive assessment may be the answer to differences in attainment, retention and satisfaction rates between student groups, especially across the race and disability spectra.
Assessment in higher education is neither value-neutral nor culture-free: within its procedures, structures and systems it codifies cultural, disciplinary and individual norms, values and knowledge hierarchies.
As a social construct, assessment could be said to comprise practices and processes through and in which specific values – such as, in the UK at least, rationality, individuality, objectivity and written linguistic capabilities – are reflected and enshrined.
As a disciplinary construct, assessment forms and practices – as Atkinson explores in his theory of the pedagogised other – become through unquestioned and habitual use to be seen as indivisible from disciplinary practice. They are normalised and, in so doing, can marginalise and exclude certain students and cohorts for whom such practices are unfamiliar and inaccessible.
Assessment can be seen to also hierarchise knowledge: in our inevitable selection of content for assessments, we subconsciously communicate to learners what disciplinary knowledge is important/valuable, and – more importantly – what is not. It is no accident that we are often asked whether what is taught is required for the exam/essay etc.
Finally, assessment is indivisible from individual value judgements: designed and evaluated by us (by humans) with all our complex socio-cultural backgrounds, educational experiences and intellectual and personal values, it is subject to our biases. So it is that we see academics unconsciously conflating proof of learning with a learner becoming more like them.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that we see differences in attainment, retention and satisfaction rates between student groups, especially across race and disability spectra.
Inclusive assessment as a solution?
Inclusive assessment is one mechanism by which to tackle this.
Originally focusing on disabled students, inclusive assessment aims to tackle assessment at point of design – looking at all aspects, from the development of marking criteria to method and mode of feedback – to ensure the ways in which we assess do not exclude students.
Nowadays, inclusive assessment is seen not just as a method by which we can address the requirements of our disabled students, but also as good pedagogic practice for all.
There is, however, no one approach to, or definition of, inclusive assessment. Institutions instead are adopting a range of principles under the IA umbrella, including, but not limited to, using a range of assessment methods, implementing student choice, considering assessment and feedback timing, and developing assessment literacy.
While there is nothing wrong with this – indeed, adaptation to institutional context is necessary for successful implementation (as highlighted recently by SOAS in their work on developing an institutional approach to IA) – it does lead to the question of whether, when we are talking about inclusive assessment, we are talking about the same thing.
How about a social justice approach?
More recently, conversation has turned to a social justice approach to assessment; an inclusive+ approach if you will.
In recent work, colleagues from Advance HE and the University of Worcester have sought to develop a typology for praxis to practicalise the theory developed by McArthur in her 2016 paper, in which a social justice approach to assessment – where social justice is envisaged as both an intrinsic quality of and a core learning outcome of assessment – was posited as a theoretical corrective to assessments’ intrinsic inequities.
This drew upon the work of Waitoller and Thorius, who advocate a cross-pollination of the two pedagogic frameworks of universal design for learning (UDL) and culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP).
UDL, with its design principles of multiple means of representation, action/expression and engagement, aims to predominantly, though not solely, enhance accessibility. CSP, meanwhile, with its design principles of embedding linguistic, literate and cultural pluralism in what and how we teach and incorporation of critical reflection on cultures, equality and diversity, aims first to enhance inclusivity and second to nurture learners’ understanding of and engagement with culture and society.
Our work argues that a cross-pollination of the two approximates to the social justice approach to assessment encapsulated by McArthur:
- By enhancing accessibility to and the inclusivity of assessment through providing multiple means of representation, action/expression and engagement and through embedding equality, diversity and cultural diversity in its content, form and practices, we can work to design assessment that is intrinsically just.
- By embedding critical reflection on equality, diversity, culture and society through assessment, and so facilitating recognition that we are all active producers of culture and society and so have a role in its development, we can work to design assessment practices and processes for which the promoting / tackling of social justice is seen as an explicit outcome.
There is, however, one element explicit in social justice but only implicit in a cross-pollinated UDL / CSP approach: true partnership in decision-making processes.
A social justice approach posits learners as agentive co-creators of knowledge with the capacity to determine a diversity of ways in which assessment processes might be designed and implemented. As such, students as true partners in assessment practices and processes not just figures in the typology, but underpins its implementation: it infuses a cross-pollinated UDL / CSP approach at every level.
Overall, by adopting a social justice approach to assessment, one that builds on inclusivity, the aim is to not only address assessment inequities, but also to support the design of assessment practices and processes that are underpinned by the core principle of respect for individual, economic and cultural difference.
The development of a social justice approach to assessment was begun following recognition that inclusive assessment only took us so far. However, inclusive assessment itself is still not widespread.
Although commonly (though not wholly) accepted as good pedagogic practice, IA is still often only implemented in a piecemeal fashion in institutions, and sometimes seen solely as diversification of assessment. How can we encourage more mainstreamed implementation? What are the limitations of IA? And what are the next steps in the route to equitable assessment and feedback practices?