Identify and Address Bias in Academic Assessment

Professors want a fair and equitable learning experience for their students. However, bias often finds its way into the classroom, particularly through academic assessment.  


What is Assessment bias?

Academic assessment bias refers to assessments that unfairly penalize or impact students based on their personal characteristics, such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion and place of origin. 


Education researchers, Kyung Kim and Darya Zabelina, studied cultural bias in academic assessment and found that in standardized and alternative assessments alike, bias often occurs through the measurement of general knowledge normed based on the knowledge and values of majority groups (Kim & Zabelina, 2015). Minority groups and persons with different language backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses and cultures may not be represented in the work, and assessments may not consider the diversity of values, thoughts, opinions and backgrounds (Kim & Zabelina, 2015). It seems we measure against a single state of what is normal, standard, expected. 


If test results are interpreted without consideration for cultural and educational factors of different identity groups, assessment scores will inaccurately reflect a student’s true level of ability and competence (Blankenberger et al., 2017). While removing bias from the academic assessment will be an ongoing pursuit for professors, there are specific ways to counter bias and ensure the most equitable learning environment possible where students’ unique abilities and backgrounds are valued in all aspects of a course.  


Types of Assessment Bias 

To examine for bias, it is important to understand the different ways bias can emerge. There are three main types of bias that arise in academic assessments; 

  1. Construct Bias 

Construct bias occurs when the concepts measured are not universal (Van de Vijver & Tanzer, 2004). When itemized objectives are created based on Western concepts, it often does not cover all relevant considerations from a non-Western perspective. The bias, in this scenario, occurs when the indicators of a particular construct do not correspond to a sufficiency or insufficiency ruling of some underlying trait or ability. For example, a student new to the U.S may not know the capital of all 50 states, but this does not mean that they have an inadequate level of geographical knowledge. 


  1. Method Bias 

Method bias refers to how the assessment is administered or acquired (Van de Vijver & Tanzer, 2004). Method bias can present in different ways. Students learn differently, and method bias may appear through formal testing where knowledge and understanding are assessed repeatedly in the same way.  For example, knowledge and understanding that is always tested through final exams while favour individuals who have experience and a strong foundation in test taking skills.

  1. Item Bias 

Item bias refers to the content of an assessment (Van de Vijver & Tanzer, 2004). Instructors must evaluate from an objective perspective and actively work to remove bias from the phrasing and language patterns of assessment questions or activity outlines (Blankenberger et al., 2017). For example, a particular phrasing of a question using western names and language will favour those Western students who grew up with this understanding.


One of the most challenging aspects of assessment bias is that it can occur without professors or students noticing. Professors, or people in general,  may hold subconscious biases. Traditional assessment methods that have long been accepted often hold inherent bias. And students may accept biased assessment as an accurate reflection of their learning, which can have detrimental impacts on their academic success and career choices.  


Ways to Reduce Assessment Bias 

  1. Culturally Responsive Pedagogy 

Instructors can remedy assessment bias through instructional design aligned with culturally responsive pedagogy (Kim & Zabelina, 2015). Culturally responsive pedagogy, or culturally relevant teaching, refers to a teaching approach that emphasizes connecting students’ culture and social situations with the school’s curriculum. To achieve this, instructors must include cultural references of students in all aspects of their course. Not only will culturally responsive pedagogy bring instructors closer to achieving bias-free assessment, but it will also create an inclusive class environment where students feel safe and open to contribute their learning, perspectives and experiences in class. 


Kritik’s discussion feature allows students to welcome new perspectives, opinions and approaches to learning through interaction with course material in open and organic ways beyond textbooks and lectures. These organic conversations, not only promote inclusive and culturally responsive classrooms, they also enable students to develop deeper understandings of course concepts. 

With Kritik, student interact with their peers and course material in meaningful ways


  1. Alternative Assessments 

Taking a purposeful approach to alternative assessment that removes bias and engages students can make a positive difference in the classroom with many rewarding learning outcomes. (Van de Vijver & Tanzer, 2004). With alternative assessments, it is critical to think about what type of alternative assessment is being used, how bias may be involved, and how the specific assessment sets out to engage, challenge and involve students in inclusive learning opportunities. Compared to standardized or traditional testing methods, alternative assessments allow students to work at their own pace and allow flexibility while promoting an empathetic and culturally responsive experience.  (Kim & Zabelina, 2015). 


One example would be staged inquiry-based learning, where students have time to explore a chosen topic, receive ongoing feedback, with the freedom to research and present their findings in unique ways. With Kritik, students can receive bias-free peer assessment throughout the assignment stages, enhance their work, share their perspectives with their peers, and ensure their work follows the set criteria outlined in the instructors’ provided rubric

Anonymous peer assessment in Kritik removes bias, and ensure a safe space for all students


  1. Adapt Classroom Culture 

Assessment bias must be considered before an assignment or activity is assigned. When introducing an assessment, clear communication of expectations is critical. Pre-assignment communication provides students with the opportunity to gain an understanding of expectations and clarify misunderstandings (Kim & Zabelina, 2015). 


Rubrics play an essential role in outlining expectations clearly and setting students up for success (Blankenberger et al., 2017). Professors should be open-minded during this process to consider the challenges, perspectives and questions of students. It may be possible that an upcoming assignment is altered based on these discussions. When students feel heard and valued, it will make the following assignments more meaningful and build greater accountability. 


Kritik has a repository of 4000+ customizable rubrics to ensure professors accurately and effectively assess students while providing students with a clear understanding of the assignment expectations so they can focus on doing their best work. 

Kritik has a repository of over 4000 customizable rubrics
  1. Group Activities 

Coupled with the development of positive classroom culture, group activities are an additional space for students to engage with the course material. Group activities help students learn through teamwork and collaboration (Kim & Zabelina, 2015). Additionally, they provide an opportunity for students to share and value each other’s diverse perspectives and positions. This means that the end product will not only be stronger and find deeper meaning in course topics, but students will develop soft skills through the process. 


Kritik enables professors to facilitate both individual peer assessment and group-based peer assessment. Team-based learning is one approach supported by Kritik that allows students to form bonds with a particular group of peers and encourages greater autonomy and responsibility. 


  1. Include More Creative Elements 

Finally, creating assessments with opportunities for creative skill development can help alleviate bias. Creativity can be defined as the ability to produce something novel and valuable (Kim & Zabelina, 2015). Creativity leverages intelligence and is a better predictor of creative accomplishments than is IQ (Kim, 2008). Creativity assessment may allow students to be evaluated “based on their actual cognitive ability rather than their ability to adapt to the culture of the majority” (Kim & Zabelina, 2015).


With discussions, anonymous feedback, and customizable rubrics, professors can use Kritik to support and encourage student creativity while defining specific learning outcomes that match with the course curriculum. 


Conclusion 

Bias won’t be eliminated from school environments. However, taking purposeful action to address and overcome bias in teaching and assessment practices will undoubtedly lead to a more equitable and inclusive learning experience for students and also demonstrate empathy and understanding for all involved. Teaching with cultural considerations, empathy, diverse assessment styles and flexibility are key to supporting equitable opportunities for all students.


Blankenberger, B., Young McChesney, K., Schenbley, S. M., Moranski, K. R., & Dell, H. (2017) Measuring racial bias and general education assessment, Journal of General Education, 66(1-2), 42-59. 


Kim, K. H. (2008). Meta-analyses of the relationship of creative achievement to both IQ and divergent thinking test scores. Journal of Creative Behavior, 42, 106-130.


Kim, K. H., & Zabelina, D. (2015). Cultural bias in assessment: Can creativity assessment help? International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 6(2), 130-148. 


Vijver, F.,& Tanzer, N. K. (2004) Bias and equivalence in cross-cultural assessment: An overview, European Review of Applied Psychology, 52(2), 119-135.

Madison Tsoutsoulas
Education Researcher

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