Social Justice Assessment

"justice" word surrounded by multiple  arms and hands of various sizes indicating that all people reach out for justice.

Social justice assessment considers factors such as race, culture, language proficiency, socioeconomic status, and ability while working to dismantle systems of power, bias, and oppression in evaluation of student learning. Various approaches, including equitable assessment, labor-based grading, and ungrading, as they relate to the purpose, process, wording, and structure of student learning assessments are included.

This innovative approach to equitable assessment focuses on the learning achieved by diverse students as it relates to specific learning objectives and mitigates the influence of dominant norms.  This task group has focused on the following topics:

  • Purpose of Assessment
  • Process & the Relationship between Students & Faculty
  • Substance – Dialogue & Feedback
  • Structure/ Mechanism of Assessment
    • Equitable Assessment
    • Labor-Based Grading
    • Ungrading
  • Best Practices
    • For Social Justice in Assessment
    • For Labor-Based Grading & Ungrading
    • LMS Assessment Settings

Purpose of Social Justice Assessment

The purpose of SJA is to create more just and democratic practices in teaching and make it more receptive to DEI. Traditional assessment perpetuates learning inequalities (data on Blinne p. 28) and standardization. SJA is grounded in the assumption that assessment is never neutral – it is “personal, social, and political”. (Blinne, p. 3)   

Traditional assessment assumes the instructor is the expert there to judge the student and that mastery is the ultimate goal. Level of performance is valued over learning gains. SJA assumes the instructor is there to facilitate the learning process (not primarily as the content expert) which is ongoing with no end point. Learning gains are valued over level of performance. 

No matter how hard we try, grading will always be applied inconsistently across courses, instructors, students, and colleges. (Blinne, pp. 6-7) SJA designs assessments according to individual students rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Traditional assessment, with its focus on performance, encourages competition, ranking, and anxiety which can lead to negative outcomes (damaging the motivation to learn, cheating, mental health problems). (Blinne, p. 9)  “Grading for learning is like bombing for peace.” (Kohn quoted by Blinne, p. 18)  Traditional assessment is also used to unfairly judge faculty in promotion, tenure, and appointment decisions. SJA focuses faculty more on student learning. (Blinne, pp. 13-14) 

SJA forces instructors to “be active and informed about consequences of [their] grading systems.”  (Blinne, p. 22) SJA “should be designed to raise questions about educational and structural inequalities (through a variety of standpoints) , fostering transdisciplinary dialogues aimed at imagining and creating learning opportunities that strive for equity, engagement, and transformation, while also working to create a more just world both within the classroom but also outside the walls of the academy.” (Blinne, p. 23) 

Process & the Relationship between Students & Faculty

SJA works best when faculty co-design their courses with students during the semester. The role of the instructor is to “create structures [students] can build on or adapt” during this process. The instructor “serves as a guide, not dictating information, but instead facilitating discussions that offer opportunities for shared inquiry designed to inspire compassionate action.” (Blinne, p. 261) This process operates on the assumption that students want to be heard by the instructor and other students, excited about what they are learning, liked by their teachers and classmates, and for their learning experience to be personal – connected to their experience, preferences, and plans. To accomplish this, Blinne (p. 162) recommends the following: 

  • Structure the syllabus as an interactive “course map” emphasizing that students customize the course to who they are 
  • Develop group consensus about course content and policies 
  • Discover shared interest in the course topics through a “wide range of engaged learning strategies” 
  • Emphasize that assignments are never complete but are always a work in progress (reinforcing learning as a lifelong process) 

In place of rubrics, Blinne (p. 265) uses the following “living-our-learning awareness practices” as a framework to assess all student work.  

  • Contemplative Engagement 
  • Cultural Understanding 
  • Critical Exploration 
  • Collective Action 
  • Creative Application 

She does not have exams or quizzes, but instead utilizes feedback on how assignments “in-progress” reflect these practices. Specific assessment criteria for each assignment are developed collaboratively with students after work has been completed. Students don’t have set deadlines for each assignment – just a date at the end of the semester when each assignment must be finalized. Students don’t receive any grades during the semester. In order to arrive at a final grade, she meets with students individually to decide what the grade should be based on their self-assessments and her feedback for each assignment. (pp. 268-269) 

Substance – Dialogue & Feedback


From the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Equity-minded assessment entails the following actions:

  • Check biases and ask reflective questions throughout the assessment process to address assumptions and positions of privilege.
  • Use multiple sources of evidence appropriate for the students being assessed and assessment effort.
  • Include student perspectives and take action based on perspectives.
  • Increase transparency in assessment results and actions taken.
  • Ensure collected data can be meaningfully disaggregated and interrogated.
  • Make evidence-based changes that address issues of equity that are context-specific.

Students’ prior learning when engaging in dialogue and offering feedback:

  • Formative vs. summative: Clarify the purpose of our assessment.

From the National Institute for Science Education (2001b)

“Assessment is a mechanism for providing instructors with data for improving their teaching methods and for guiding and motivating students to be actively involved in their own learning. As such, assessment provides important feedback to both instructors and students.

Assessment Is Feedback for Both Instructors and Students

Assessment gives us essential information about what our students are learning and about the extent to which we are meeting our teaching goals. But the true power of assessment comes in also using it to give feedback to our students. Improving the quality of learning in our courses involves not just determining to what extent students have mastered course content at the end of the course; improving the quality of learning also involves determining to what extent students are mastering content throughout the course.”

Structure/ Mechanism of Assessment

Equitable Assessment

The goal of assessment should be to identify what students have learned in order to revise teaching practices accordingly (Milner). Equitable Assessment seeks to discover what students have learned, regardless of racial or cultural background, socioeconomic status, disability, or learning differences. 

Proponents of Equitable Assessment suggest that course-level assessments be used to recognize and promote learning over time (Milner). Traditionally, students in marginalized groups have been at a disadvantage, due to assessments being tailored to more advantaged students. Equitable assessments focus on the achievement of learning goals, which may be captured through a variety of means, including portfolios, revisions, and non-traditional writing assignments (St. Amour).  Equitable assessment strategies help to remove barriers that have traditionally prevented fair assessment of student learning.

Labor-Based Grading

Labor-Based Grading is a form of assessment that values the time students spend on their coursework. Students are given feedback on their work (their “labor”) and have the opportunity to continue working to improve their output – assignments, essays, projects, etc – and achieve the grade they desire based on a grading contract.

Researchers find that grades “play to extrinsic (not intrinsic) motivation, decrease enjoyment of learning, and increase fears of failure. More than that, grades aren’t necessarily a good measure of student learning. And, based on additional research, we know they’re subject to rampant inflation” (Flaherty)

Knowing that they will not be given grades for each individual assignment, students can be more creative and take more risks with their work. The feedback they receive from their instructor focuses on improving, and encouraging, student work instead of justifying a grade. This allows all students the same potential to earn a high grade in the course regardless of their writing ability prior to the start of the course.

There are different models of Labor-Based Grading which vary from the instructor providing a contract at the start of the course to the instructor and students collaboratively creating a contract at the beginning of the term. In general, students start with a “B” grade and can raise or lower their final grade based on the amount of work they do (or do not) complete.

Why try Labor-Based Grading?

“Grading, because it requires a single, dominant standard, is a racist and White supremacist practice. There is no way around it…Grading is almost always employed in order to control students (and sometimes their teachers), force students to be accountable (and sometimes their teachers), and measure or rank students (and sometimes their teachers), either against each other or against a single standard.

“Each of these purposes for grading in writing classrooms is detrimental to learning generally, and more harmful to many students of color and raciolinguistically diverse students. This is because “diverse students” means “not White students,” or students who use varieties of English that are not the standardized version used in the schools.”

– Asao Inoue


Ungrading as a practice stems from critical pedagogy and seeks to promote equity in assessment. Clarissa Sorenson-Unruh summarizes the basic goal of the approach: “Ungrading, at its essence, involves ceding power (that has pretty exclusively belonged to us as instructors) to our students in terms of monitoring and assessing their own progress” (2020). Ungrading expert, Jesse Stommel, reinforces the importance of this power shift: “Agency, dialogue, self-actualization, and social justice are not possible in a hierarchical system that pits teachers against students and encourages competition by ranking students against one another. Grades (and institutional rankings) are currency for a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a mere transaction. Grading is a massive coordinated effort to take humans out of the educational process” (2017). Proponents of ungrading argue that traditional grading seeks to force uniformity among diverse student populations, provides only an incomplete picture of student learning, and doesn’t truly motivate student learning.

At its core, ungrading seeks to disconnect feedback from assessment. Rather than relying on traditional numerical grades calculated using tests, rubrics, or other standardized metrics, ungrading seeks to deprioritize (or eliminate entirely) numerical grades. Instead, instructors are encouraged to focus on providing learner feedback that encourages growth. Student final grades are often determined by students’ reflections on their own learning or determined collaboratively through conversations between student and teacher.

Ungrading can take a variety of forms depending on the instructor’s comfort level, subject matter, and pedagogical goals. Below is a short list of classroom practices curated by ungrading expert, Jesse Stommel (2018):

  • Grade Free Zones: Determine a period of the semester that is free from numerical grades while allowing students to gain comfort with the subject matter.
  • Self-assessment/Process Letters: Have students evaluate their own learning by discussing their learning in the course, pointing to specific work they’ve completed and how it relates to course goals, or even assign themselves a grade. This metacognitive writing can take a variety of forms depending on its role in the course and the semester.
  • Minimal Grading: Utilize grading measures that simplify grading like pass/fail, strong/satisfactory/weak, or even assigning but not collecting certain assignments.
  • Labor/Contract Grading: Covered in its own section above.
  • Process or Product Portfolios: Ask students to curate and reflect on their own work via a portfolio project that illustrates their learning in the course.
  • Peer Assessment: This approach can include students formally evaluating one another’s work or working collaboratively on group projects and reflecting on their role.
  • Student-Made Rubrics: Ask students to develop their own grading rubrics as a way of showing their understanding of the course, learning outcomes, and their own learning.

Best Practices

Social Justice in Assessment

  • Use authentic assessments instead of high-stakes testing (multiple choice) 
  • Ask a colleague to read your test questions…Is the language equitable or does it favor certain students?
  • Focus on learning objectives rather than (unrelated) traditional requirements like grammar and spelling
  • Consider the variety of ways students can demonstrate learning, using multiple assignment formats and modalities
  • Correct vs. respond:  Be intentional about what to do when. “One way of ensuring student cooperation is to ask them what kind of tasks they think would be helpful. What topics interest them? What kind of writing would they most like practice in? Students are far more likely to complete tasks which they themselves have chosen than ones which have been imposed on them” (Jeremy Harmer, p. 123, How to teach Writing, 2004)

Labor-Based Grading & Ungrading

  • Explain Labor-Based Grading clearly to your students. This infographic by Traci Gardner is a great example with a Creative Commons license.
  • Introduce ungrading by framing the larger goals of this process and either initiating frequent conversations about grading or (for larger groups) assigning student reading on this topic
  • Be mindful of how this practice must be situated within a larger critical pedagogy. Consider how ungrading might impact choices about assignment design, due dates, course policies, etc.
  • Embrace flexibility within this process. Many students may feel uncomfortable with the lack of grades.

LMS Assessment Settings

Each Learning Management System (Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) offers a variety of settings associated with assessments such as quizzes, tests, discussions, and assignments.  The settings include timers, prohibited backtracking, one question per page, and a limited availability period. Often, these settings are used with the goal of preventing academic dishonesty.  However, they can instead prevent students from participating to the best of their ability.

CAST offers a variety of Universal Design for Learning guidelines that can be applied to assessment.  Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the practice of creating learning opportunities that are appropriate for all learners, regardless of differences that impact learning (disabilities, socioeconomic status, cultural differences, etc.).

  • Avoid time limits on tests/ quizzes
  • Allow extended or fully open availability periods
  • Allow students to stop and start (do not force completion)
  • Flexible/ negotiable timelines
  • Display grades as complete/incomplete for certain assignments (complete earns full credit)
  • Avoid “all of the above” and “none of the above” choices
  • Do not lock questions after they are answered; allow students to go back and check their answers
  • Conditional Release of differentiated assignments based on achievement or prior learning (Mastery Paths in Canvas, for example)