No Longer Business as Usual: The Use of Justice-Based Paradigms to Inform Assessment Practices

No Longer Business as Usual: The Use of Justice-Based Paradigms to Inform Assessment Practices


In 2013 I took a leap of faith and moved from southern California to Tucson, Arizona to support student affairs assessment and research efforts at the University of Arizona (UA).  I had always been passionate about assessment and, as my work evolved, I found it to be a powerful tool for telling a data-informed story about impact and need. My passion for advancing equitable practices and outcomes in higher education institutions has also been at the center of my personal and professional disposition and emanates even stronger today in my role as the Assistant Vice Provost for Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Initiatives at the UA.

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The intersection between assessment and research practices and the act of advancing more equitable practices and outcomes in higher education may seem like two separate paths, but what if we imagined them to be synonymous?  What if we used justice-based paradigms to inform our assessment and research practices? In the absence of doing so, what likely exists? These are the very questions that were tackled in a recent special issue of New Directions in Institutional Research, which explored the “intersection of social justice aims of colleges and universities with the orthodoxy of how assessment is practiced within institutions” (Zerquera, Hernández, & Berumen, 2018, p. 8).


My Writing Journey

My colleague, Susana Hernández, and I had the opportunity to co-author an article in the special issue titled Assessing the Capacity of Hispanic Serving Institutions to Serve Latinx Students: Moving Beyond Compositional Diversity.  The writing process required that we be introspective, both professionally and personally.  As co-authors, we spent time talking through our own

experiences with assessment and the outlook that we wanted to share as to how socially-just assessment practices could support an improved understanding of how well HSIs were positioned to actually serve the very students affiliated with this federal designation.  As we wrote, I asked myself the following questions:


  • How had I engaged or enabled the use of assessment practices that resulted in maintaining the status quo in higher education?
  • In what ways have I challenged normative assessment practices and built capacity in others to do the same?
  • What assessment practices were currently in my toolbox that were grounded in justice-based paradigms?

So, as you can tell, the process of introspection became very real, very quick.


Dr. Hernández and I wrote, reflected, revised, and re-engaged in conversation over several months as we developed our article.  I share this with you to convey that it was not only a process to write about this topic with one another, but more importantly I want to convey that it is an intentional process to shift one’s mindset and adopt socially-just assessment practices.  This evolution takes time and effort and everyone will likely have their own starting point in the process. Nonetheless, we can no longer accept business as usual with our assessment practices, nor those of others.



Reflection and Perspective-Stretching

Now let me return to the questions I posed in the previous paragraph.


Q: Had I ever engaged in the use of assessment practices that resulted in maintaining the     

    status quo in higher education?

A: Yes, I have.

Q: Do I know better now?  

A: Yes, I do.

Q: Do I know everything there is to know about centering my assessment and research

practices in justice-based paradigms?  

A: No, I do not but I am committed to engaging in the work that it takes to learn more and do better.  


Perspective-stretching moments that can result in such learning may come by way of engaging in a conversation with a colleague from another university about their use of justice-based paradigms, reading through commentary from a hosted Twitter chat about such topics, tuning into free webinars, raising these same questions during a class in a graduate preparation program, and reading about justice-based paradigms from various genres of literature and fields of research.  Regardless of the efforts you chose, I encourage you to commit to engaging in more perspective-stretching moments about the work that we do and how we do it.



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Socially-Just Assessment Practices: Insights & Strategies

I combed through the special issue of New Directions in Institutional Research and pulled out some points to share that could advance our understanding and practice of socially-just assessment practices.  These strategies could be ideal entry points for building greater institutional capacity for advancing such assessment practices.  Here are just a few pearls of insight:


  1. Ensuring Equitable Access to College Experiences: Assessment practices that focus only on students’ educational outcomes and not on how those outcomes were achieved limit the ability to address important issues, particularly issues related to differential campus experiences relative to students’ diverse background characteristics (Dorimé-Williams, 2018)      
  2. Striking a Methodological Balance: Strategies for influencing social change through research include, but are not limited to, conducting mixed-methods research and involving students in the research process (Person & Garcia, 2018)
  3. Leveraging Data as Guideposts Along a Student’s Journey: Traditional institutional performance metrics are often characterized as heavily outcome-driven (e.g., retention and graduation rates) and lack process-oriented benchmarks (e.g., academic progress toward degree, high risk courses) that could help Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) understand how their current practices foster or impede their ability to serve Latinx students (Franco & Hernández, 2018)
  4. Starting with How We Prepare Each Other: In preparing our colleagues through graduate education, how and what they learn about assessment and evaluation is of utmost importance if we are to shift the field’s approach to assessment and integrate justice into the ways we approach our work, which requires more than sprinkling justice-based readings within traditional assessment curriculum (Ballysingh, Hernández, & Zerquera, 2018)

The rationale for ceasing a business-as-usual approach is hopefully evident and that the opportunity to learn and engage in socially-just assessment practices seems relevant, desirable, and necessary.  Sometimes improved practice starts with asking ourselves more questions. The bigger and more important question is: How might we influence change at our respective institutions, among our professional organizations, and in our graduate and assessment training programs?

I hope that you will join me on this journey!  Knowing better requires that we do better. Consider reading more about these thoughts here and comment below with your reaction and ideas based on this reflection.  We’re in this together, so I look forward to hearing from you!


Marla Franco, University of Arizona

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