Little Things Matter: Equity in Assessment | Haiyun Lu | 8 Min Read

October 6, 2022

It was on a cold April morning, I received an email from my niece’s school informing me that she was on the verge of failing her English class. If no immediate intervention happened, she would not graduate on time.

I was in disbelief: Why was I now hearing about this? Why didn’t I receive any communication on her struggles and poor performance or her English teacher’s unmet expectations? How could she pull herself out of the scorching hot water when it was so near to the end of the game? I knew, mathematically, that if she received one F in her gradebook, it would take at least 90 perfect scores to bring her grades up. What could we do realistically at this point?

After a long conversation with my niece, I learned that it all started with missing a winter break reading without any makeup opportunity. Being an international student who was still struggling in English, she didn’t hear about the winter break reading. She certainly didn’t expect to take a test on the first day after they came back.  

That night, at the dinner table, she told me what happened, and I remembered that she asked me to use Amazon prime to order the book for her. I asked: “You are going to talk to your teacher and ask him for a makeup opportunity, yes?” My niece felt intimidated. Coming from China, students don’t dare question a teacher’s authority. The next morning, when I dropped her off at school, I nudged her again to talk to her English teacher. I explained: “I am a teacher; no teacher wants any student to fail. Don’t be scared; it’s his job to help you grow and succeed!” I assured her that I knew her English teacher’s mindset. She cracked a tiny smile, and I thought the whole issue was about self-advocacy. Therefore, I put everything out of my mind.

It was only on that cold gloomy April evening, I found out that her self-advocacy did nothing for her. It instead put her on the teacher’s blacklist. Her teacher had no “retake” and “remake” policy regardless of any circumstances. I wrote to him immediately and explained that although my niece worked hard, due to her English proficiency level, she didn’t always comprehend what was going on in class. Since her previous English teachers never assigned any winter break readings before, her lack of fluency and assumption probably got in the way. “Is there anything else she can do?” I asked. He replied: “No, every student has the same amount of time and opportunity to complete every task in my class.” He continued: “If she didn’t understand my instruction, she should have asked me.” It was quite disheartening to receive this message. My niece simply did not know what she didn’t know. My niece is not a fast learner. She has to work extra hard for everything she earns. In addition, as a Chinese international student, she is not good at seeking help since culturally, this is viewed as burdening others: self-reliance is valued highly in China.

I wrote back and inquired about another failing grade in writing. He wrote: “She has too many grammatical errors in her writing. It doesn’t always make sense.” I responded: “Can she have a chance to rewrite based on your comment?” He replied: “No, it will not be fair to other students.” Basically, he was expecting the same level of work from her as from superior native speakers. Failing her is a righteous thing to do in the name of fairness. Did he consider a student’s true growth? Did he consider that English is her second language and that she just began to learn it a few years ago? Since he believed that he was holding everyone to the same standard, I questioned where was the culturally responsive teaching in his practice? Where is equity in his approach?  

I am also a teacher; I have many students with a wide range of neurodiversity in my classroom, as well as students from different social, economic, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds. Over the years, I realized that the traditional “one size fits all” assessment approach is a disservice to the individuals in front of me. It might be “fair”in that everyone gets the same thing. But it is NOT equitable when ability, experiences, culture, and ethnicity are considered.

Let me be brutally honest, I’ve been thinking about equity in assessment for quite some time, but I still have not come up with a clear answer on how to include equity each time because all the factors in assessments are so complex. Also, many times, educators can easily lose sight of the purpose of assessment.

Then, what is the purpose of assessment?  

If assessments are to be used to gauge student learning, development, and improvement overtime; if assessments are to be used by teachers to adjust their practices and find out whether they have met the needs of students; if assessments are to be used by parents to capture a clear picture of their child’s areas of strength and weakness, then assessments should be differentiated to offer choices and options. Assessments should not be used as a sorting system to rank students. Kids should not feel intimidated by assessments.  

I admit that I have vacillated between “fairness” and “equity” in assessments for years. Offering differentiated assessments may not feel fair, according to traditional practice and assumptions. However, just like we don’t expect every student to finish their half mile run at the same time, how can we anticipate that all students will master the same amount of content at the same rate at an arbitrary time? In language development, we know that even native speakers learn to speak and walk at their own pace. Then why and how do we believe that all students acquire a second or third language at the exact same speed and in the exact same way we teach them, as if it is like waving a magic wand?  

Last year, I had a student named G in my class. During the first week of school, his parents requested an early morning meeting with all his teachers to outline his academic strengths and weaknesses, as well as how they manifest in class: G needs lots of help with planning, organizing, and breaking down a big task into small pieces; G needs extended testing time. G needs frequent breaks in class to get water or take a walk (His request to go to the bathroom is constant.); and G needs help to create an outline first in writing. G had never taken a second language class before.

Very quickly, I realized that G’s receptive language (reading and listening) was acquired at the same rate as everyone else in the class. However, his output? Not at all! Three weeks in, when the majority of students began to engage in various speaking activities, G still couldn’t pronounce each word clearly. The words he meant to say sounded totally different from what we heard. If a question was directed at him, he often comprehended easily. However, his typical response was nonverbal. Since he could not differentiate the sounds auditorily, it meant he wasn’t able to spell pinyin and engage in any writing activity either. Meeting G where he was meant that I only assessed him on his listening and reading comprehension. If I assigned the class a speaking or writing task, G was offered an opportunity to work on a reading or listening activity. It was nearly at the end of April when G suddenly began to answer simple questions in Mandarin. When I recommended that he repeat the Novice 1 class so he could develop his writing and speaking skills, his family happily supported the decision.

Since day one this academic year, G has been answering questions in Mandarin verbally. I am pleased with his progress. I am also convinced that without being equitable to G, he would be sorted out of any language class during the first month of school.

Now, you might wonder what happened to my niece. Did she graduate or flunk out of high school? Despite all the hurdles in her English class, my niece received a full scholarship from a local university to study in the nursing program.  

I sat by her and worked on her last two English essays, sentence by sentence. Then we had a native speaker look over her grammar to make sure “her” writing was spotless. Those weeks were extremely stressful for all of us. In the end, she survived the whole ordeal, with little to no development in her English proficiency. Her English teacher’s expectation was beyond her reach at that time. The effort I put in merely helped her get a good grade but not actual acquisition. My help only increased her self-doubt and frustration. Because what she should have been doing was focusing on getting her meaning across and not grammar accuracy.  

The truth is that in the current educational environment, equity in assessment is still a much-debated topic. The majority of educators went through a vigorous sorting and ranking system themselves and often fall back on the practices they are familiar with the most.  Humans are creatures of habits. Creating equitable assessments require a paradigm shift in the mind, courage to tread murky water, willingness to embrace uncertainty and unfamiliarity, and strong admin support through this foggy journey. It also asks educators to really see the students in front of them as “individuals” whose brains work differently. That range of neurodiversity should not only be recognized, but it should also be accommodated. Holding every student to the same standard might be “fair,” but it is a disservice to the student’s growth and enables inequity.  

Haiyun Lu

Haiyun Lu, a Chinese language teacher at the University School of Milwaukee (WI), is also a writer, blogger, trainer, curriculum designer, meditator, and Co-Founder at Ignite Chinese.

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