More thoughts on assessment bias

My daughter phoned on her way to work this morning. She’s training in Speech Language Pathology in California. Today she is evaluating an African American 4th grader who has been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. She tells me that these evaluations require extra care because according to state law, black students cannot be ability-assessed (cognitive) in any quantitative way. This dates back to the old days of IQ tests – this document by T. Wyatt has a good history. These students cannot be tested with scores, and they cannot be compared to any sort of “norm”. Her assessments, then, require care to articulate the holistic ability and needs of this particular student.

Why has no-one stepped back to ask specifically who these sorts of tests are biased towards? And then deduced all the magnitude of people that they are biased against?

We are at an institution that welcomes students from all over the world, bringing with them their unique customs, foods, ways of knowing, and historical ways of assessments. There are very likely students in your classes right now who have never seen the type of question you are asking or the type of assessments you are administering. There are likely some who have never had time as a significant variable in their assessments. There are some coming from cultures where student input is included in assessments (ie/ Indigenous cultures where assessments are co-created and negotiated.)

I have attempted to mitigate some of these effects this year in my large section of first year biology. One thing that has mattered is allowing students to self-schedule their exams within a 3-4 day window. A second thing is tossing out points. Instead, we are binning answers into 4 buckets representing conceptual understanding. Third, and perhaps most critical, is implementation of a student-selected weighting scheme. In their term project, students demonstrate the things we learn in lecture applied to a self-selected organism (ie/ a Western Red Cedar tree). I have framed this project as an opportunity to demonstrate learning outside of an exam. Students can then decide to weight this project as 0%, 10%, or 25% of their course mark. Students who are comfortable with North American UBC style exams can choose to weight this project low or not even do it, and there is an opportunity for students to choose otherwise. Also importantly, students will self-assess these projects with detailed justification tied into their learning outcomes.

The term is ongoing, but many students have reported less exam stress with this combination of interventions. I hope that we can continue to think deeply about our assessment biases and broad scale implementation of big changes with our learners.



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