Progress or bust: Moving toward intersectionality in higher education assessment

Written by
Cobretti Williams

Feb 18, 2020

Feb 18, 2020 • by Cobretti Williams

Assessment has become a key mechanism for institutional change in higher education. But, only within the last 10 years has assessment become a guide for evidence-based practice and information about student learning, curriculum, and campus climate. As Anjali Thomas wrote for University World News, “Higher education has been globally recognised as a medium through which individuals can overcome a variety of social barriers and inequalities. Higher education has therefore become an institution with intersecting objectives and mandates. This makes access to higher education a highly contested arena.” As student populations become more diverse and markedly embrace salient social identities at the intersection of privilege and oppression, inevitably the ways we assess learning, development, and success on college campuses must change as well.

The foundations of assessment in higher education are highly contested and vary depending on one’s orientation to systemic improvements in higher education research and practice. The first conference for assessment in higher education occurred in 1985 in Columbia, South Carolina, and was co-sponsored by the National Institute of Education and the American Association for Higher Education. This conference came on the heels of a heightened need to create formal tools that assess student learning and development and establish internal and external accountability towards educational standards. Herein lies the issue: although assessment of higher education has shown that colleges and universities offer significant value to students over their lifetimes, defining the actual growth in learning is another story. During a panel discussion at the Academic Resource Conference, John Etchemendy, the former provost at Stanford University said, “There's a paradox that puzzles me and should puzzle all of us...the answer to the question on the screen — is higher education accomplishing what it said it would? — is absolutely yes.” However, he then went on to say, “Whenever we try to directly measure what students have learned, what they have gotten out of their education, the effect is tiny, if any. We can see the overall effects, but we cannot show directly what it is, how it is that we’re changing the kids.” Thus, while the intention and resources to assess and evaluate the structure and practices of colleges and universities have become more prevalent over the years, the impact is still hazy and in need of reconstruction for future generations of students.

Speaking of the future, the need to revamp and restructure assessment in higher education comes from the ever-changing student demographics on college campuses. As a result, we are seeing a rise in students attending college and the creation of new identity categories, including an emerging multiracial student population and prominence of queer students of color. However, assessment of these experiences is still under development and largely focuses on campus climate that does not always consider interlocking and intersecting experiences of identity. Compared to earlier assessment of campus diversity, the identity of today’s college student is more complex. Students identify with multiple identities and ways of being, and thus, intersecting identities of race, gender, sexuality, spirituality, and other salient identities must be considered when discussing improvements to campus climate. Because identity has become more complex, perspectives of learning, success, and development have expanded. While there may be some similarities, there are experiences among the perspectives of LGBTQ students, women of color, students with disabilities, and first-generation students of color that must be counted in our assessment efforts.

In order to improve assessment in a way that honors and incorporates intersectionality into systemic evaluation methods, there are multiple elements to consider. Robert G. Bringle, Patti H. Clayton, and William M. Plater offered a few key recommendations in their article that sum up these elements, including a critical look at the environmental contexts in which we are assessing student learning and success, the representative sample of voices in our assessment tools, and the historical foundations of campus structures that play a role in how students view and perceive their campus climate. These recommendations emphasize moving beyond general survey attempts at capturing student voice to smaller, community-based collection options such as focus groups, student events, and interviews with students that represent different ranges of social identities. Moreover, analysis of data also needs to change, focusing less on generalizability and more pulling from the rich, anecdotal data from students that often gets lost in traditional assessment efforts.

What is clear is that student demographics are rapidly changing. Previous standards of diversity and equity no longer fit the nuance of identity and necessity of intersectionality when it comes to assessment of student learning, development, and success. Institutions are beginning to understand this and are taking noticeable steps to demonstrate equity in assessment practices, particularly minority-serving institutions. For example, the University of Southern California recently developed an Equity Scorecard, based on interdisciplinary research and scholarship that shifts beyond the experience of marginalized students to meaningful actions that must be taken by staff, administrators, and university leaders to create equitable learning environments. If we are to make true equitable change in higher education, the way we define and evaluate our campuses must adapt to the increasingly complex and intersectional nature of the student experience.