Transforming Higher Education and Student Affairs through Socially Just Assessment

Transforming Higher Education and Student Affairs through Socially Just Assessment


Suzanne D. Williams via Unsplash

As external forces assert increasing pressure and influence over higher education and student affairs work, college and universities are continuously called upon to demonstrate their value. In response to these accountability demands, our profession has responded by requiring our student affairs professionals to develop the necessary skills to take on outcomes-driven assessment work with aplomb.

As faculty who teach graduate coursework in assessment and evaluation, we are conscious of the ways that broader higher education inequities are manifested within and throughout campus environments and student life, in particular. We assert that a core focus on social justice principles should not be lost in efforts to respond to assessment demands. In fact, assessment work in student affairs provides a unique opportunity to advance a more holistic vision of assessment and to challenge the dominant narrative surrounding the value of student affairs work. This means that higher education and student affairs graduate programs, as the avenues by which the future of our field is cultivated, must center just principles in their assessment and evaluation coursework.


Navigating Intersections

As educators representing diverse and multiple institutions, we emphasize the need to address the intersection of social justice and assessment in graduate student affairs courses. In a recent volume of New Directions for Institutional Research, we promote the goal of “full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs” (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007, p.1). Applying this definition to higher education settings pushes beyond rhetoric and mere striving for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Instead, it provides a framework that centers issues of oppression, privilege, and power (NASPA/ACPA Competencies, 2015) in the assessment conversation. By embracing this definition, whether it be in the areas of student affairs, student services, or academic affairs, we call for a fundamental shift towards practices that require systems to be responsible for and responsive to the creation and perpetuation of injustice.

In many instances, assessment work in practice has shifted away from “improving student learning and development” (Palomba & Banta, 1999, p. 4) and has morphed into a tool to uphold market-driven higher education priorities (Wall, Hursh, & Rodgers, 2014). Standard assessment practice has a long way to go in terms of aligning with the philosophies we propose. More specifically, our pedagogical approaches and classroom experiences of assessment instruction rest upon a hybrid theoretical framework in which experiential learning, critical pedagogy, and problems of practice advance our collective understanding of how injustices are perpetuated among students via these market-driven forces. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Critical experiential framework for teaching assessment and evaluation for social justice.

Paradoxical Push and Pull

The paradox between assessment and social justice reflects tensions in both ideology and practice. For example, ideologies shaped by free-market capitalism have come to dominate organizational meaning- and decision-making in higher education. This shows up vividly in assessment rationale and practice (Wall, Hursh, & Rodgers, 2014). Value is attributed to elements that produce positive outcomes within a capitalist framework and that emphasize individual achievement over community. In this way,“neoliberalism” works against social justice (Lazzarato, 2009; Sleeter, 2009). Higher education assessment as a key practice arose from these neoliberal accountability movements (Bresciani, Gardner, & Hickmott, 2009; Ewell, 2002).  As currently implemented, neoliberal-influenced assessments are largely driven by external accountability demands and scrutiny over the market value of colleges and universities (McArthur, 2015; Wall, Hursch, & Rodgers, 2014).


These values manifested within assessment practice are further compounded by other paradigmatic challenges. Academia relies upon a positivist view of education that calls for logic, data, and statistics for meaning-making. This further shapes the paradox between social justice and assessment. Models that demonstrate student learning and achievement often rely upon objective tests and related business techniques to directly describe observable educational outcomes using positivist paradigms (Gray, 2002). The limitations of these quantitative and positivistic methodological approaches easily perpetuate inequities and silence minoritized groups (Dowd, Sawatzky, & Korn, 2011; Stage, 2007).


Issuing a Challenge

Increasing accountability demands issue a challenge for student affairs practitioners, faculty, and administrators who care about social justice. This is reflected by increased emphasis on professional preparation in assessment for graduate students that is occurring simultaneously with rising social tensions (Hamrick & Kinzie, 2017). Student affairs professionals bear witness to daily systemic oppressions that manifest within the college campus yet conventional approaches to assessment that treat justice as additive rather than centralized maintain inequality.


To challenge the currently dominant orthodoxy of our field, we call upon our colleagues and challenge our graduate students to question the way they engage with assessment practice at all levels. We call upon more holistic pedagogical frameworks that move assessment beyond mere rhetoric of equity, diversity, and inclusion. This is the very goal of our New Directions chapter focused on teaching assessment, which we created to support faculty in HESA graduate programs, institutional researchers, and practitioners committed to embracing social justice as a core value in education.


We remain committed to the learning and development of emerging professionals in the realm of assessment and evaluation. As scholars and teachers preparing practitioners, this is of utmost importance if we are to push through the paradox and thereby transform our field via its approach to assessment.



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Tracy Arambula Ballysingh, PhD - University of Vermont

Ignacio Hernandez, PhD - California State University, Fresno


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