Beyond Espousal: Tracking Assessment for Social Justice

Beyond Espousal: Tracking Assessment for Social Justice


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Typically, assessment and social justice are seen as both peripheral and additive to the work of student affairs, as opposed to being central and integrated in the way the work is done. However, some research indicates that practitioners are working to merge these concepts to advance and reclaim social justice within assessment work (e.g., Bourke, 2016; Zerquera, Berumen, & Pender, 2017). This blog post captures key takeaways from the recent publication, Understanding Practitioner-Driven Assessment and Evaluation Efforts for Social Justice”. The purpose of the study whose findings are captured within this article was to examine the ways in which student affairs practitioners are employing social justice in assessment work. This current blog summarizes key takeaways from that chapter.


Accountability in the Margins

Social Justice and Assessment are often individually set in the margins of the student affairs field. When the two core competencies are combined the integration of assessment for social justice as a common practice, is even more rare.  Still, when combined there is increased potential for learning by students and for moving beyond espousing commitments to social justice and assessment towards practicing these valuable skills in a more consistent manner for student affairs practitioners.


The authors of this article set up a contextual background currently experienced in student affairs where a “check box” mentality is set up through an accountability narrative informed by a perceived need to prove to stakeholders that their investment in an institution is worthy of their donated resources. A focus on satisfaction, of students and by stakeholders, restricts growth of students and student affairs practitioners alike when devaluing of learning occurs.


When student affairs work is oversaturated with demands of satisfaction and accountability, assessment is underutilized and social justice is nearly impossible to practice. However, the authors offer an example where assessment for social justice have been integrated with success in promoting not only learning focused on social justice, but also assessment protocols that were inclusive and empowering.  This example is explained to be the impetus of a deeper inquiry that resulted in the study conducted by the authors.


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Framing Survey Results

The authors grounded the study in social movement theory with the intention of capturing the complex nature of integrating assessment and social justice into student affairs work where no one person can make and sustain such institutional change. Considering time, resources, institutional culture, and political climate as factors that are often barriers to circumvent, the design of the survey instrument was benefited by social movement theory.


The exploratory results revealed a gap between espoused values and practices due to a lack of knowledge, training, and resources across departments and divisions. Further there was an attitude present of both social justice and assessment work being relegated to their respective departments and when significant data was collected it was often ignored by key decision-makers or only used for compliance and not improvement.


Institutional Implications

When discussing strategies for assessment for social justice, the authors’ list is the result of a pattern established by participants. Of note, the authors found that it was not one, but many of these strategies in concert that proved effective in making sustainable change for participants.  Each strategy and an example can be found below:


  • Collaboration: Includes both inviting others with beneficial skill sets for the project and those most impacted by the project itself (e.g. students, administrators, staff and faculty) throughout the entire assessment cycle. When all affected by the assessment project are given space for feedback for the duration of the assessment cycle, the probability of benefiting the campus community increases.
  • Advocating for resources: Seeking support for a project often requires multiple forms of resources. Executive (e.g. Vice Provost, Dean) approval can sustain a long term project. Along with budget allocations, research grants, committee formations, trainings, and time to plan, implement, and review findings are also key resources required in a successful project.
  • Modifying current practices and programs: A critical component to establishing a new project is to build on what is currently being done. Change is most successful when it feels familiar to people. Further, most current protocols are grounded in the context of the campus culture and values that were established by personnel still at the university. Their buy-in to the new changes is critical for a successful project.
  • Reframing language of institutional values: Long established and rarely reviewed, institutional values often require reframing to match the needs of today’s campus. Social justice changes each year because the composition and thus the needs of the campus community changes from year to year. Establishing a habitus of reframing promotes a recognition of reflecting this constant change in an effort to meet community needs.   


Further, “The key strategies employed reflected not necessarily working within the institution to shift focus via trainings or collaboration, but rather focused on creating a critical mass of social justice-minded individuals and centering this group on assessment” (Zerquera et al., 2018).  


While a positive finding, the establishment of critical mass in pockets across the country is not systemic. Individually, social justice and assessment are well-established competencies in higher education. In addition, assessment for social justice is a pathway to assessing beyond satisfaction and accountability towards learning, while practicing inclusion and empowerment.  


The authors establish assessment for social justice is happening, and offer a strategic pathway. Still, it is ultimately up to reader to know their specific campus resources, culture, and political landscape in order to establish sustainable change. As one reflects on what the authors offer, it will be important to identify who potential collaborators are, what opportunities can they be given to be included and empowered, and what sort of critical reflections need to take place in order to enact assessment for social justice. Once needs and collaborators are determined, it will be vital to identify action steps such as training, establishment of teams or committees, and resource allocation to sustain the project’s vision. Once enough campuses establish a critical mass of assessment for social justice practitioners, the field of student affairs will take note and shift from espousal to practice.

As a reader, what are your thoughts on incorporating assessment into social justice advocacy? What are some first steps you would take to start on your campus? As the author’s sought to track both examples and challenges to assessment for social justice across the country, what narratives and/or considerations can be included in the future? What role can you play in establishing a critical mass for this movement? We'd love to hear from you - comment below!



  • Zerquera, D., Reyes, K., Pender, J., & Abbady, R. (2018). Barriers and strategies to navigating implementation of social-justice centered assessment in student affairs. In D. Zerquera, I. Hernandez, and J.G. Berumen (Eds.), Assessment and Social Justice: Pushing Through Paradox (pp. 15-40). Special issue of New Directions in Institutional Research. San Francisco, CA: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
  • Zerquera, D., Berumen, J. G., & Pender, J. (2017). Assessment for social justice: Employing Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a framework for assessment and evaluation. The Journal of College and University Student Housing Special Issue: Social Justice in College Housing, 43(3), 14–27.


Jason Pender, College and Alumni Program-Making Waves Foundation

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