What’s fair and unfair in assessment: Survey finds teachers divided on ethical issues

iStock_000005088343XSmallIn one classroom, the teacher believes it’s fair game to include surprise items on a test that are not in a study guide but doesn’t believe it’s fair to weight homework for report card grades. This teacher doesn’t generally take effort into account when grading students and will give a student with incomplete homework an A if the student has clearly mastered the coursework.

But down the hall, another teacher believes the opposite, that it’s unethical to include surprise items on a test when students are using a study guide, but fine to weight homework for report card grades. This teacher always takes student effort into account when grading and would never give an A to a student with incomplete work.

In a recent issue of Teaching and Teacher Education, a team of researchers reports that teachers have very inconsistent beliefs about what is fair and unfair in student assessment based on the results of their survey. Teachers were presented with various scenarios and asked to rate the assessment practices as “ethical” or “unethical”. The results show that ethics guidelines for assessment are clearly needed for educators, the researchers conclude.

“Results showed strong agreement among the educators on fewer than half of the scenarios presented in this study,” the authors report. “These findings suggest that assessment is currently an educational realm without professional consensus.”

The researchers used a standard of 80% rating as ethical or unethical to identify areas of high agreement among teachers on the assessment scenarios presented in the survey.

Key areas of disagreement

In the survey, teachers disagreed most about:

  • weighting homework in determining report grades (57% ethical, 43% unethical);
  • giving a student an A if he or she had mastered the course objectives but had not completed all the homework assignments (37% ethical, 63% unethical);
  • using surprise test items that are not in a study guide (34% ethical, 66% unethical);
  • only addressing student strengths in report cards (41% ethical, 59% unethical), and
  • grading essay tests while knowing the identities of student writers (48% ethical, 52% unethical).

Teachers largely agreed that using many forms of assessment in the classroom is ethical (99%), that relying on one form of assessment is unethical (85%) and that relying on a very small number of assessments for determining grades is unethical (78%).

In other areas of agreement, teachers rated:

  • lowering a report card grade for disruptive behavior as unethical (85%),
  • considering student effort when determining grades as ethical (85%) and
  • lowering a grade for late work as ethical (86%).

The web-based, 36-item survey was taken by educators in the graduate and undergraduate programs at two major southern US universities. There were 169 respondents, 114 pre-service and 55 in-service. The 36 items covered topics in seven categories: Standardized test preparation, standardized test administration, multiple assessment opportunities, communication about grading, grading practices, bias and confidentiality.

Teachers were in greater agreement over items related to communicating about grades, confidentiality and multiple assessment opportunities, and were in less agreement over items related to bias and grading practices.

Pre-service teachers were more likely to rate the following practice as ethical: A teacher creates learning activities with specific math problems that are included in the annual achievement test. In-service teachers were more likely to rate the practice as unethical. Otherwise there were few differences between the two groups.

Do no harm

Stressing the importance of developing guiding principles and an ethics framework for educators, researchers reviewed previous research and found two general principles that could provide a starting point for developing ethics guidelines. These two principles are: “do no harm” and “avoid score pollution.”

“Do no harm” focuses on the importance of protecting the rights of individuals affected by an evaluation, the authors write. “Fairness (or protection of student rights) is a general principle that no one contests in the abstract,” they write. “However, thinking about causing harm focuses the discussion at the level of the implications of everyday practice. Educators must be well versed in the potential impact of the practices they use because their assessment and evaluation may have a variety of unintended consequences for their students.

“For example, a teacher who uses surprise items on a test that did not appear on the study guide may do harm by breaking the implicit bond of trust between teacher and student. A teacher who passes out tests from highest grade to lowest may do harm by breaching confidentiality. Such actions imply lack of respect for student rights and needs.”

Avoid score pollution

The other principle, “avoid score pollution”, is based on the premise that any practice that improves test performance without increasing actual mastery of content produces score pollution. Practicing before a test with actual test content would produce score pollution, the authors write, and so would modifying grades or scores because of student effort, lateness or behavior problems.

In their survey responses, teachers showed more agreement on items that related to the “do no harm” principle than on the items that related to “avoid score pollution.”

As a working principle, the authors propose using a definition of ethical behavior as “acting based on one’s judgment of an obligation– a duty by virtue of a relationship with a person, persons, or social institution.”

Schools and districts should encourage conversations about ethical issues in assessment, and teacher training programs should address ethics issues in courses on instruction and assessment, the researchers say. Disagreement among teachers on items related to score pollution indicates that classroom grading should be especially highlighted in discussions on ethics. Even with guidelines,however, there will always be the need for educators to exercise judgment. “Educators must be given the space, autonomy, and support to learn to use their judgment,” the authors write.

“Ethics in classroom assessment practices: Issues and attitudes,” by Susan Green, Robert Johnson et. al. Teaching and Teacher Education, October 2007, Volume 23, Issue 7, pp. 999-1011.

Published in ERN October 2007 Volume 20 Number 7

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