August 21, 2020

Practicing Equity-Centered Assessment

This content was previously published by Campus Labs, now part of Anthology. Product and/or solution names may have changed.

“At its core, equitable assessment calls for those who lead and participate in assessment activities to pay attention and be conscious of how assessment can either feed into cycles that perpetuate inequities or can serve to bring more equity into higher education.”[1]

Assessment has been used to evaluate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts and it is time to shift the discussion to embedding DEI efforts into the practice of assessment. A number of practitioners who participated in a recent survey about the intersections of assessment and equity agree.

While most assessors support the principles of DEI, many continue to support, enable or endorse dominant culture assumptions about reality, knowledge and learning through their assessment practices. These “non-justice-based paradigms and methods”[2] value and prioritize objective quantitative approaches that often don’t consider the lived experiences, culture, and identities of many students. This unexamined approach often reinforces a deficit model for and about non-white students, where the use of assessment results centers around mitigating perceived student weaknesses, rather than scrutinizing institutional practices, policies, programs and culture for systemic barriers to student success. Most assessment practitioners do not consider their own power, position and biases as assessors, leading to faulty data and further marginalizing already under-served students.

To shift toward equity and justice in assessment, a reframing of assumptions and norms is required. This involves expanding the “diversity” conversation to situate equity at the center and using data to examine and ultimately dismantle institutional systems of power and oppression. Equity-centered assessment validates and attends to students’ identities and cultural backgrounds, considers how systemic bias and discrimination can affect learning and the student experience, exposes policies and procedures that promote bias and discrimination, and helps educational practice be more inclusive and equitable.

Equity-Centered Assessment Practices

Center your assessment practice in equity by considering these core questions and using the worksheet to evaluate your practices around the assessment cycle.

1. Validate and attend to students’ identities and cultural backgrounds.

To effectively close the equity gap and realize higher education’s mission for student success requires creating contexts and curriculum that respond to the social, political, cultural, and educational needs of all students. Treat students as experts in their own lived experiences and engage them as critical stakeholders in the process to validate student experiences, enhance data quality, and have a multifaceted understanding of credible evidence.

  • In what ways do you operationalize student agency by providing opportunities for students to define learning in their own language?
  • Have you incorporated multiple modalities to collect evidence of student learning and validate pluralistic ways of gaining and demonstrating knowledge?
  • To what extent are demographic variables used as proxies for culture? What opportunities are present for students to self-identify on demographic items in meaningful ways?
  • How are you are attending to intersectionality (race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, etc.), recognizing the way in which individual students’ multiple identities cannot be fully separated from one another for meaning-making?

2. Consider how systemic and institutionalized bias and discrimination affect learning and the student experience.

Systemic or structural “isms” normalize and legitimize historical, institutional and interpersonal policies, procedures, and ways of seeing the world that routinely benefit the dominant ideology while producing adverse conditions for marginalized populations).

  • How and where does systemic bias and discrimination affect student learning and the student experience?
  • How does power and institutional culture influence the assessment process?
  • Where can you call attention to systemic bias by acknowledging identities not included in analysis and why (e.g., when talking about findings for male and female categories, make note that students identifying beyond the binary are not represented in the data, often because institutions do not collect or share this information in thoughtful and systemic ways)?
  • How are you creating opportunities to dismantle systems by integrating stakeholder voices and perspectives? Who has voice and power in shaping the learning and assessment processes? Who is at the “table”? Are there voices or perspectives that have been historically silenced?

3. Expose policies and procedures that promote bias and discrimination.

Policies and procedures are reflections of campus structures, goals and priorities. Unexamined, they perpetuate and uphold systems of power and oppression.

  • How do discussions around the “achievement gap” and the use of standardized measures perpetuate the notion that all students enter higher ed with the same core resources and have the same experiences?
  • Which policies and procedures at your institution contribute to disparities in educational achievement and blame students for those accumulated disparities[3]?
  • Does your institution collect information on student demographic variables and co-curricular involvement related to race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation? If yes, is that data readily available to include in data analysis and disaggregation? What populations are represented in the data, which populations are erased?

4. Help educational practice be more inclusive and equitable.

Use five principles for enacting equity by design informed by campus examples using the Center for Urban Education’s Equity Scorecard.

  • Has your institution engaged in dialogue about what constitutes student learning and the multiple ways it could be demonstrated (in and out of the classroom) and assessed?
  • Where and how does your assessment language reflect culturally acquired knowledge and perpetuate racism?
  • How are senior leaders, faculty, and staff educated about racial inequity as a structural problem (rather than a cultural problem attributed to minoritized populations) and the need to consider equity in the sociohistorical context of exclusionary practices at your campus and in higher education?
  • Is equity at your institution a “targeted strategy” achieved through programs or offices or a standard for all aspects of the institution from resource allocation to assessment to strategic planning?


[1] Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N.A. (2020). A new decade for assessment: Embedding equity into assessment praxis. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.  

[2] Zerquera, D., Hernandez, I., & Berumen, J. (eds) (2018). Special Issue: Assessment and Social Justice: Pushing Through Paradox. New Directions for Institutional Research. Spring 2018.  

[3] Dowd, A.C., & Bensimon, E. M. (2015). Engaging the “race question”: Accountability and equity in U.S. higher education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Additional Resources

Heiser, C. A., Prince, K., & Levy, J. D. (2017). Examining critical theory as a framework to advance equity through student affairs assessment. The Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, 2(1), 

Henning, G. & Lundquist, A.E. (2020). The intersection of assessment and equity, inclusion, and decolonization: A model (of transformation and liberation). NASPA Knowledge Community Publication.

Download Equity-Centered Assessment PDF

Headshot of Anne E. Lundquist, Ph.D.

Anne E. Lundquist, Ph.D.

Managing Director of Learning and Impact
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice

Dr. Anne E. Lundquist (she/her/hers), Managing Director of Learning and Impact for The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, is a white, cisgender, third-generation educated researcher, poet, yogi, and social justice advocate who draws on her 30-year career in higher education to help campuses use data for change. Previously, Anne served as Assistant Vice President, Campus Strategy for Anthology, Director of Strategic Planning and Assessment for the Division of Student Affairs at Western Michigan University as well as senior student affairs officer at four liberal arts colleges. She has taught diverse subject matter, including educational leadership, institutional effectiveness, higher education law, writing, and literature. Anne’s areas of scholarship and interest include strategic planning, enterprise risk management, student success, and equity-minded assessment. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a doctorate in Educational Leadership, Higher Education, from Western Michigan University. She earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and English from Albion College.

Headshot of Ciji A. Heiser

Ciji A. Heiser

Director for Student Affairs Assessment and Effectiveness
Western Michigan University

Ciji A. Heiser is the Director for Student Affairs Assessment and Effectiveness at Western Michigan University. Currently, she coordinates assessment and strategic planning efforts, manages data integration and visualization, and leads evaluation and program review processes. Prior to working at WMU, Ciji spent six years at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill working in assessment and at St. Mary’s College of Maryland as an area coordinator for international student support. Ciji received her bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Bucknell University, M.Ed. from Kent State University, M.S. in Educational Research Methodology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is pursuing a doctorate in the same program focusing on culturally responsive evaluation and measurement for equity.