Fair Assessment Practices
Giving Students Equitable Opportunities to Demonstrate Learning
By Linda Suskie
From the May 2000 AAHE Bulletin
I am a terrible bowler. On a good night, I break 100. (For
those of you who have never bowled, the highest possible score
is 300 and a score below 100 is plain awful.) This is a source
of great frustration for me. Ive taken a bowling class,
so I know how Im supposed to stand and move, hold the
ball and release it. Yet despite my best efforts to make my
arms and legs move the same way every time, the ball only rarely
rolls where its supposed to. Why, I wonder, cant
my mind make my body perform the way I want it to, every time
I roll the ball?
If we cant always control our bodily movements, we certainly
cant always control what goes on in our heads. Sometimes
we write and speak brilliantly; sometimes were at a loss
for words. Sometimes we have great ideas; sometimes we seem
in a mental rut. Is it any wonder, then, that assessment
finding out what our students have learned is such a
challenge? Because of fluctuations in whats going on inside
our heads, we inconsistently and imperfectly tell our students
what we want them to do. Because of similar fluctuations in
whats going on in our students heads, coupled with
cultural differences and the challenges of interpersonal communication,
they cant always fully interpret what weve told
them as we intended them to, and they cant always accurately
communicate to us what they know. We receive their work, but
because of the same factors, we cant always interpret
accurately what theyve given us.
A colleague whos a chemist throws up his hands at all
this. Having obtained controlled results in a laboratory, he
finds assessment so full of imprecision that, he says, we can
never have confidence in our findings. But to me this is what
makes assessment so fascinating. The answers arent there
in black and white; we have, instead, a puzzle. We gather clues
here and there, and from them try to infer an answer to one
of the most important questions that educators face: What have
our students truly learned?
Seven Steps to Fair Assessment
If we are to draw reasonably good conclusions about what our
students have learned, it is imperative that we make our assessments
and our uses of the results as fair as possible
for as many students as possible. A fair assessment is one in
which students are given equitable opportunities to demonstrate
what they know (Lam, 1995). Does this mean that all students
should be treated exactly the same? No! Equitable assessment
means that students are assessed using methods and procedures
most appropriate to them. These may vary from one student to
the next, depending on the students prior knowledge, cultural
experience, and cognitive style. Creating custom-tailored assessments
for each student is, of course, largely impractical, but nevertheless
there are steps we can take to make our assessment methods as
fair as possible.
- Have clearly stated learning outcomes and share
them with your students, so they know what you expect from
them. Help them understand what your most important goals
are. Give them a list of the concepts and skills to be covered
on the midterm and the rubric you will use to assess their
- Match your assessment to what you teach and vice
versa. If you expect your students to demonstrate good writing
skills, dont assume that theyve entered your course
or program with those skills already developed. Explain how
you define good writing, and help students develop their skills.
- Use many different measures and many different kinds of measures. One of the most troubling trends in education
today is the increased use of a high-stakes assessment
often a standardized multiple-choice test as the sole
or primary factor in a significant decision, such as passing
a course, graduating, or becoming certified. Given all we
know about the inaccuracies of any assessment, how can we
say with confidence that someone scoring, say, a 90 is competent
and someone scoring an 89 is not? An assessment score should
not dictate decisions to us; we should make them, based on
our professional judgement as educators, after taking into
consideration information from a broad variety of assessments.
Using "many different measures" doesnt mean
giving your students eight multiple-choice tests instead of
just a midterm and final. We know now that students learn
and demonstrate their learning in many different ways. Some
learn best by reading and writing, others through collaboration
with peers, others through listening, creating a schema or
design, or hands-on practice. There is evidence that learning
styles may vary by culture (McIntyre, 1996), as different
ways of thinking are valued in different cultures (Gonzalez,
1996). Because all assessments favor some learning styles
over others, its important to give students a variety
of ways to demonstrate what theyve learned.
- Help students learn how to do the assessment task. My assignments for student projects can run three single-spaced
pages, and I also distribute copies of good projects from
past classes. This may seem like overkill, but the quality
of my students work is far higher than when I provided
Students with poor test-taking skills may need your help in
preparing for a high-stakes examination; low achievers and
those from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly likely
to benefit (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1995). Performance-based
assessments are not necessarily more equitable than tests;
disadvantaged students are likely to have been taught through
rote memorization, drill, and practice (Badger, 1999). Computer-based
assessments, meanwhile, penalize students from schools without
an adequate technology infrastructure (Russell & Haney,
2000). The lesson is clear: No matter what kind of assessment
you are planning, at least some of your students will need
your help in learning the skills needed to succeed.
- Engage and encourage your students. The performance
of "field-dependent" students, those who tend to
think more holistically than analytically, is greatly influenced
by faculty expressions of confidence in their ability (Anderson,
1988). Positive contact with faculty may help students of
non-European cultures, in particular, achieve their full potential
- Interpret assessment results appropriately. There
are several approaches to interpreting assessment results;
choose those most appropriate for the decision you will be
making. One common approach is to compare students against
their peers. While this may be an appropriate frame of reference
for choosing students for a football team or an honor society,
theres often little justification for, say, denying
an A to a student solely because 11 percent of the class did
better. Often its more appropriate to base a judgement
on a standard: Did the student present compelling evidence?
summarize accurately? make justifiable inferences? This standards-based
approach is particularly appropriate when the student must
meet certain criteria in order to progress to the next course
or be certified.
If the course or program is for enrichment and not part of
a sequence, it may be appropriate to consider growth as well.
Does the student who once hated medieval art now love it,
even though she cant always remember names and dates?
Does another student, once incapable of writing a coherent
argument, now do so passably, even if his performance is not
yet up to your usual standards?
- Evaluate the outcomes of your assessments. If your
students dont do well on a particular assessment, ask
them why. Sometimes your question or prompt isnt clear;
sometimes you may find that you simply didnt teach a
concept well. Revise your assessment tools, your pedagogy,
or both, and your assessments are bound to be fairer the next
time that you use them.
Spreading the Word
Much of this thinking has been with us for decades, yet it is
still not being implemented by many faculty and administrators
at many institutions. Our challenge, then, is to make the fair
and appropriate use of assessments ubiquitous. What can we do
to achieve this end?
- Help other higher education professionals learn about
fair assessment practices. Some doctoral programs offer
future faculty studies in pedagogy and assessment; others
do not. Encourage your institution to offer professional development
opportunities to those faculty and administrators who have
not had the opportunity to study teaching, learning, and assessment
- Encourage disciplinary and other professional organizations
to adopt fair assessment practice statements. A number
of organizations have already adopted such statements, which
can be used as models. Models include statements adopted by
the Center for Academic Integrity (McCabe & Pavela, 1997);
the Conference on College Composition and Communication (1995);
the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation
(1994); the Joint Committee on Testing Practices (1988); the
National Council on Measurement in Education (1995); and the
first National Symposium on Equity and Educational Testing
and Assessment (Linn, 1999); as well as AAHE (1996). (See Assessment Policies, below).
- Speak out when you see unfair assessment practices. Call for the validation of assessment tools, particularly
those used for high-stakes decisions. Advise sponsors of assessment
practices that violate professional standards, and offer to
work with them to improve their practices.
- Help improve our assessment methods. Sponsor and
participate in research that helps create fairer assessment
tools and validate existing ones. Collaborate with assessment
sponsors to help them improve their assessment tools and practices.
Help develop feasible alternatives to high-stakes tests.
- Help find ways to share what we already know. Through
research, we have already discovered a great deal about how
to help students learn and how to assess them optimally. With
most of us too busy to read all thats out there, our
challenge is finding effective ways to disseminate what has
been learned and put research into practice.
As we continue our search for fairness in assessment, we may
well be embarking on the most exhilarating stage of our journey.
New tools such as rubrics, computer simulations, electronic
portfolios, and Richard Haswells minimal marking system
(1983) are giving us exciting, feasible alternatives to traditional
paper-and-pencil tests. The individually custom-tailored assessments
that seem hopelessly impractical now may soon become a reality.
In a generation maybe less its possible
that we will see a true revolution in how we assess student
learning, with assessments that are fairer for all . . . but
only if we all work toward making that possible.
Linda Suskie is director of AAHEs Assessment Forum,
and assistant to the president for special projects at Millersville
University of Pennsylvania. Contact her at email@example.com.
Several organizations have developed statements that include
references to fair assessment practices. Some are available
Code of Fair Testing Practices
in Education by the Joint Committee on Testing Practices, National
Council on Measurement in Education
Code of Professional Responsibilities
in Educational Measurement by the National Council on Measurement
Leadership Statement of Nine Principles on Equity in Educational
Testing and Assessment by the first National Symposium on Equity
and Educational Testing, North Central Regional Educational
Laboratory www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/ content/cntareas/math/ma1newst.htm
Nine Principles of Good Practice
for Assessing Student Learning by the American Association for
Writing Assessment: A Position
Statement by the Conference on College Composition and Communication
American Association for Higher Education. (1996, July 25). Nine principles of good practice for assessing student learning [Online]. Available: http://www.aahe.org/assessment/principl.htm
Anderson, J. A. (1988). Cognitive styles and multicultural
populations. Journal of Teacher Education, 24(1), 2-9.
Badger, E. (1999). Finding ones voice: A model for more
equitable assessment. In A. L.
Nettles & M. T. Nettles (Eds.), Measuring up: Challenges
minorities face in educational assessment (pp. 53-69). Boston:
Conference on College Composition and Communication. (1995). Writing assessment: A position statement [Online]. Available: http://www.ncte.org/ccc/12/sub/state6.html
Fleming, J. (1998). Correlates of the SAT in minority engineering
students: An exploratory study. Journal of Higher Education,
Gonzalez, V. (1996). Do you believe in intelligence? Sociocultural
dimensions of intelligence assessment in majority and minority
students. Educational Horizons, 75, 45-52.
Haswell, R. H. (1983). Minimal marking. College English,
Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation. (1994). The program evaluation standards: How to assess evaluations
of educational programs (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Joint Committee on Testing Practices. (1988). Code of fair
testing practices in education [Online]. Available: http://ericae.net/code.txt
Lam, T. C. M. (1995). Fairness in performance assessment:
ERIC digest [Online]. Available: http://ericae.net/db/edo/ED391982.htm (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 391 982)
Linn, R. L. (1999). Validity standards and principles on equity
in educational testing and assessment. In A. L. Nettles &
M. T. Nettles, (Eds.), Measuring up: Challenges minorities
face in educational assessment (pp. 13-31). Boston:
McCabe, D. L., & Pavela, G. (1997, December). The principled
pursuit of academic integrity. AAHE Bulletin, 50(4),
McIntyre, T. (1996). Does the way we teach create behavior
disorders in culturally different students? Education and
Treatment of Children, 19, 354-70.
National Council on Measurement in Education. (1995). Code
of professional responsibilities in educational measurement [Online]. Available: http://www.natd.org/Code_of_Professional_Responsibilities.html
Russell, M., & Haney, T. (2000, March 28). Bridging the
gap between testing and technology in schools. Education
Policy Analysis Archives [Online serial], 8(19).
Scruggs, T. E., & Mastropieri, M. A. (1995). Teaching
test-taking skills: Helping students show what they know. Cambridge MA: Brookline Books.