How do we make literacy assessments equitable in the age of standardized testing?


Olivia Moore sheds light on the relationship between instruction, standardized testing, and equitable assessment in her blog this week. She will be a member of the panel featured in our upcoming webinar. For more about Olivia, see below.

As teachers, we sometimes feel we don’t have a say in the summative assessments we give, such as those meant to evaluate learning like an end-of-chapter test. Doing what we know is equitable can be difficult when so much rests on standardized test scores. This, in turn, leads to the belief that the assessment content is more important than learning and the information gathered from formative assessments that inform our teaching (Elish-Piper et al., 2022). This is dangerous because, as we know, teaching “to the test” is inefficient, inequitable, and often not enjoyable because it can lead to removing teacher autonomy and limiting what we can do with our students – think drill and kill teaching instead of teaching based on students’ interests and needs.

The Center for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at Tufts University defines equitable assessments as “the on-going activities that allow students and instructors to understand student progress on meeting the course learning objectives” (Tufts, 2022). Therefore, to truly be equitable in our assessment practices, we need to focus on meeting the needs of all learners while we teach, gathering data through formative means, such as observations and conversations, during teaching. Additionally, we need to gather diagnostic data across a multitude of assessments every lesson, unit, month, and even across the year.  You may be wondering what we need to do to make our assessment practices and teaching more equitable when we must use standardized, one-size-fits-all assessments that are only snapshots of student learning and not very accurate, with many wondering if they are even ethical. Below, I share a few things I consider and reflect on when I meet my students before and during assessments across the school year.

  1. Get to know your students.

Knowing your students is the first step because if we want to understand what our students know or don’t know, we need to know them as people. We must understand and care about their identities. That is, who they are, what they think about themselves, and their funds of knowledge (Muhammad, 2020). The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) states that accomplished literacy teachers use their knowledge of children to differentiate learning experiences for students (NBPTS, 2012). With that said, if we know we need to differentiate instruction, why don’t we differentiate assessments, too? If you know that Sally loves snowboarding, giving her a biography of a famous snowboarder for her comprehension assessment may align more with her interests, which impacts her motivation to read, ultimately, a part of creating equitable assessments. When students have more background knowledge on a topic, we can better see what they comprehend from the text (Fisher & Frey, 2020).

  1. Get to know what you are assessing.

Using engaging texts within instruction is a start. However, we also want to consider how we assess students’ learning and if the assessment considers what a student already knows, capitalizing on students’ strengths to gather data on their needs. Let’s look at Carter. Carter is extremely bright, but his written expression and spelling are considered behind or low for a typical middle schooler his age. Students are required to engage in research and then share their learnings. Carter’s facial expressions and fidgeting show that he is stressed, possibly because this typically means writing a report, and he struggles with writing. If we want to reflect on the intent of the assignment, for students to demonstrate their learning, possible assessment modifications include Carter using a dictation program on his device to type for him, recording a video of himself sharing the information, or even reporting to you orally. Another potential modification comes in the form of what he writes. Carter loves rap music and did very well in the poetry unit. Therefore, maybe Carter would enjoy sharing his findings by creating his own rap song. This will allow Carter to demonstrate putting thoughts in writing and synthesizing information into a composition, aligning with concerns he isn’t writing. No, he may not be writing a research report, but he is writing. We always want to come back to what we mean to assess with the assignment or project. Is the goal to assess his ability to write words down on paper or his ability to research and put coherent thoughts together? Were you intending to assess spelling or his ability to share his learning? Assessment doesn’t always have to look “traditional”; it needs to align with the task at hand. If the goal for Carter is to research and synthesize information, then how he shares his learning doesn’t have to be in a written report.

By creating assessments that center students’ interests and strengths, the process builds confidence and efficacy.  Carter used what he knew and loved, rap, to build from a starting point and then showcase his learning. This centers his growth versus what he can’t or won’t do, such as asking him to write a report or another assessment that would cause Carter to shut down. Therefore, when we create assessments, we want to think about the purpose of it and determine if it is designed to simply give a score or to inform how to support students’ learning better. Requiring Carter to write a research report or take a test may assess his learning; however, only the one that aligns with his interests is equitable for Carter.

  1. Getting to know your biases.

While we all try not to make assumptions about our students, it is important to consistently reflect on how we learn about each and every student who steps into our classrooms. It is crucial that we only assume to know a child after getting to know them. Perhaps you have a special education student or an English Language Learner on your roster. Don’t assume you know who they are and what they can do because of a label given to them by someone else; it could impact how you teach them (Savitz & Kane, 2023). Think about Carter again. When Carter steps into your classroom, it could be easy to make assumptions about his reading and writing abilities. However, if you take time to get to know him and what he likes and excels in, where he is comfortable, and consider his strengths, you can create assessments to support his success in ways that work for him, such as changing how he demonstrates his learning. This is not just for Carter, though: Do this for ALL your students! Let them come in fresh each year. Don’t listen to the teacher in the grade below who talks about what a troublemaker Samantha is. Talk to Samantha yourself and get to know her yourself, and then consistently pay attention to her during instruction to formatively assess what she needs. 

  1. Getting to know students as people and not one test.

Lastly, remember that one test does not define a student’s capabilities or yours as a teacher. Even the code of ethics in those thick test training books says that making standardized test scores the only indicator of how well a student is learning is unethical. By gathering lots of ongoing data and creating more equitable assessments across the year, you will know (and be able to share with students and parents) the growth a child has made, regardless of their end-of-the-year test score. This positivity is needed when the stress of state testing starts to make our students feel like they aren’t smart enough to pass, when they may just not be good at taking a standardized assessment that isn’t equitable.

It is up to us to plan classroom assessments through an equitable lens. Therefore, I leave you with the following quote to ponder:

“As we shed our respective sources of blindness, perhaps we can envision a transformation in literacy assessment theory and practice, one that supports the pursuit of equity, opportunity, and rich learning.” – David Slomp and Bob Broad in Monsters, Inc.: Curing Ethical Blindness in an Era of Test-Based Accountability


Childress, J., Backman, A. C., & Lipson, M. Y. (2019). Reframing Literacy Assessment: Using Scales and micro‐progressions to provide equitable assessments for all learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 63(4), 371–377.

Elish-Piper, L., Matthews, M. W., & Risko, V. (2022). Reading assessment to promote equitable learning: An empowering approach for grades K-5. The Guilford Press.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2020). Improving adolescent literacy: Content area strategies at work (5 ed). Corwin.

Muhammad, G. (2021). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2012). Literacy: Reading–Language Arts Standards. Author.

Slomp, D., & Broad, B. (2020). Monsters, inc.: Curing ethical blindness in an ERA of test‐based accountability. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 64(2), 232–235.

Tufts University. (2022, November 4). What are equitable assessment practices? Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching.,meeting%20the%20course%20learning%20objectives

Olivia Moore works at East McDowell Middle School as a Reading Specialist. Her undergraduate and Master’s degrees are from East Carolina University – Go Pirates!! Her passion is reading and she is determined to help all of her students feel confident with reading. Those who don’t enjoy reading just haven’t found the right book yet!

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