Assessment Inequity: Its Impact on Minority Student Success by Jerald Henderson, Ph.D., AHEE Board Member

As higher education continues to address issues of accountability through its use of assessment to improve student learning and student success, there remains unequal achievement of student outcomes among minority student populations.  Explaining and addressing these inequities should involve the intentional collection of assessment data that specifically identifies the factors that explain these outcome differences.  It is already widely known, for example, that a significant percentage of African American and Hispanic students have lower six-year completion rates than white and Asian students who attend four-year public institutions.  For those charged with assessment and institutional research duties, consideration should be given as to whether degree completion differences can be attributed to the campus’s climate and how minority students respond based on their individual and collective cultural experiences (Harper & Hurtado, 2007).  

If an institution understands the unequal academic experiences among African American and Hispanic students who attend predominantly white institutions (PWIs), it could facilitate the development of effective policies and programs that would address these differences to improve student learning and success.  Researchers who have studied these issues from a macro perspective have provided empirical evidence that explains the various educational attainment challenges among specific student populations (Gellin, 2003; Kuh, 2009; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).    As the higher education community continues to rely on assessment data to understand and improve student learning and student success, it is important for campus stakeholders to identify key factors that contribute to unequal student learning outcomes among students of color which affect their low persistence and success rates.  

Trend data may indicate lower six-year completion rates among African American and Hispanic students at your institution, but annual assessment results may not specifically identify the underlying cultural factors that can explain these degree attainment disparities.  Do campus climate factors, for example, play a significant role that impedes persistence and degree completion for these groups of students (e.g. classroom environments, pedagogical practices, sense of belonging)?  Determining whether assessment inequities exist on your campus can lead not only to improving and implementing effective assessment practices, but how better to address degree completion disparities and other student success outcomes.  Flawed or inadequate assessment practices usually produces flawed results and inaccurate and/or invalid assumptions about why certain student demographics don’t succeed.  Both academic and non-academic staff (i.e., student affairs), who are usually involved in designing and implementing assessment plans may overlook how social and cultural differences play a critical role in the classroom (Terenzini, Cabrera, Colbeck, Bjorklund, & Parente, 2001).  

In addition, student persistence and completion problems persist when honest discussions do not take place about how faculty and staff view different students who show up on their campuses and in their classrooms.  These issues may be compounded when very few college faculty acknowledge and/or discuss the educational and social implications of race and racism:    

Unfortunately, low persistence and completion rates among African American and Hispanic students will continue to be problematic on many college campuses until faculty, staff, and administrators revise the one-size-fits-all approach for assessing and improving student learning outcomes.   Administrators will continue to question why there is no significant improvement despite retention-focused services that have been put in place that are designed to address perceived academic deficiencies and thus improve degree completion disparities.  Asking the following questions, however, may help facilitate important conversations for future policy and programmatic changes on your campus:

  • Does my campus have open and honest conversations about considering assessment inequity regarding students of color, and if not, why not?  
  • Does my campus discuss potential differences in educational and social experiences among different student sub-populations (e.g. African Americans, Hispanics)?  
  • Are individual differences among specific student populations considered by faculty to help students succeed (Strange & Banning, 2015)?
  • Are faculty assessing student learning that unintentionally validates certain types of learning and evidence of learning over others (Jones, 2015; Methvin & Markham, 2015)?
  • How culturally responsive are the assessment practices on our campus based on the various student populations that are served?

It is not easy to for any campus to change the status quo, it is necessary to begin the process of changing the academic paradigm by intentional and honest self-reflection.   This means taking an objective look at ways of assessing student learning and student success, especially as it pertains to minority student populations on your campus.   Acknowledging and understanding that current assessment practices may not be as culturally responsive as they need to be is the first step towards transforming the academic and social experiences of minority students.

Please share your thoughts and comments about this topic. 


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