Reviewed by Stephanie Hedge, University of Illinois, Springfield
Henning, G. W., Jankowski, N. A., Montenegro, E., Baker, G. R., & Lundquist, A. E. (Eds.). (2022). Reframing assessment to center equity: Theories, models, and practices. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
It has become increasingly unethical to ignore the role that higher education plays in the perpetuation of systemic injustices and inequalities, and many individuals and institutions are looking for ways to upend these systems to fulfill the promise and power of a higher education for all who enter these hallowed halls. But challenging entrenched systems of power is a big ask, and uncertainty about where or how to start that work is a barrier that can turn activist desire into stagnation or apathy. Reframing Assessment to Center Equity: Theories, Models, and Practices offers one avenue for starting this work: building and implementing assessment lenses, frameworks, and practices that center ideologies of equity, both as practice (how we conduct assessment) and purpose (using assessment to discover and remediate equity gaps). The editors of this text are engaged in a passionate call to action, inviting the reader to take what they learn in this “companion on an equity journey” (p. xvi) to make real, meaningful change. The second chapter, “The Assessment Activist,” by Divya Samuga_Gyaanam+Bheda, all but begs the reader to deliberately, consciously, purposefully, and repeatedly, pick up the mantle of activist and start doing the work of making change (p. 25), and the following 18 chapters outline concretely how to do that work. Do not just read this book and put it back down, the editors implore, but use it as the starting point for disrupting systems of oppression. The words are nothing without the work.
Editors Gavin W. Henning, Gianina R. Baker, Natasha A. Jankowski, Anne E. Lundquist, and Erick Montenegro balance theory and practice, following “a framework of ‘what, why, how, and now what’” (p. xv) as they unpack what equity centered assessment desires to be and why it is vital and urgent before moving to sharing specific, concrete examples of what this looks like in practice, from the individual classroom to the larger institution. This text figures assessment as a kind of lever for institutional change, a practice that determines what questions are asked, what stories are told, and what voices are heard. The book invites readers to think about assessment beyond a “compliance/improvement divide” (p. 326), and instead as a “transformative process on behalf of social justice and decolonization in the academy and the world” (p. 303).
The central claim of this text is that assessment is never neutral, which is both a critique and a call for change. Editors Montenegro and Henning point out that assessment “is planned and carried out by people and conducted within social institutions guided by norms, policies, assumptions, and preferences, which means bias is inherently part of the process because assessment is socially situated” (p. 5). This text argues that if those of us who conduct assessment are not deliberate in our framing—if we do not explicitly and consciously choose a methodology that centers equity—we are using the “default” frameworks of oppression, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. “Assessment is complicit in either exacerbating the equity problem already existing in higher education today or mitigating it. It is not a value neutral exercise,” says Bheda in her chapter, before inviting the reader to be a “revolutionary assessment activist” (p. 33). Changing the frameworks that we use for deciding what, when, how, and why to conduct assessment has the potential to create ideological and epistemic shifts institutionally, and the text shares several different approaches to doing this work. In the first chapter, Montenegro and Henning offer series of research paradigms (similar to Janet Emig’s 1982 Inquiry Paradigms, although she is not cited here) that explain the underlying epistemologies that guide assessment methods and call for the adoption of frameworks and paradigms that either make space for or explicitly require a focus on equity and social justice (p. 14). The third chapter explores a series of historical assessment “lenses,” tracing the broad approaches of assessment practice through time to point out the equity gaps in assessment historically and argue for a new lens that centers equity. Chapter four provides “The Current State of Scholarship on Assessment” and acts as a mini-encyclopedia of relevant topics, definitions, and schools of thought, while chapter five unpacks the promise and power of storytelling as an assessment strategy. Closing out the first part of their text, chapters six and seven share models, approaches, and lenses to thinking about equity-centered assessment, giving concrete, specific changes to make in existing assessment systems to center equity. The authors are careful to avoid advocating for a single approach, and rather provide the tools for thinking critically about existing frameworks and epistemologies and shifting towards equity.
That said, throughout the text, the editors pay particular attention to Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world. There are sections in the framing chapters dedicated to Indigenous epistemologies, and chapter 7 works to “elevate the work of decolonization and Indigeneity and provide an example of that in practice” (p. 112), acting as showcase for the ways that shifts in an assessment lens lead to particular kinds of assessment practices. The authors are careful to include Indigenous voices in this chapter (and others) as they lift up this specific paradigm.
Following on from the required shifts in worldview asked by the first part of the text, part three dives into what this kind of assessment looks like in practice. The authors are quick to point out that changes in perspective are the first step, but they are just the first step, and more work is required. “There is no checklist or four-step process to attain equity” (p. 327) Bheda, Jankowski, and Peter Felten argue in the closing chapter, but there are ways to do this work in multiple different spaces, as chapters tackle the particulars of assessment in class meetings and assignment development; opening assessment practices to meaningful explorations of the environment and the inclusion of student voices; moving assessment to cocurricular spaces and student affairs; and thinking about assessment in STEM, at community colleges, and at HBCUs. While much of the first section of this text was authored by the editors, the chapters in part three are all authored by the diverse scholars and assessment practitioners who did the work, tracing their practices as a how-to guide for making meaningful change in higher ed.
This book ends the way that it opens: with a call to action. “There is a lot of good trouble assessment professionals can get into, and you have agency” (p. 339), the editors say. Deciding to do this work is the first step. It is not the hardest step (for this work is hard), but it requires the greatest conviction, and it requires community, intentionality, and a measure of risk. Picking up this book is the start of doing that work, which the editors acknowledge as they invite the reader into further conversation in the conclusion. But the work is worth doing. And this text seeks to empower the reader to do the work; to change the world. The book ends with a challenge: “what are you going to do with this newfound power?” (p. 339). How will you answer their call?
Emig, J. (1982). Inquiry Paradigms and Writing. College Composition and Communication, 33(1), 64–75. https://doi.org/10.2307/357845