Designing for Equity: Innovative Assessments in a Post-COVID World

Client: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation

Imagine you are about to end your senior year, but instead of sharpening your number two pencil and pulling out a scantron for a bubble test, you are putting the final touches on your portfolio of work showcasing your project, research and learnings from the last semester, year or high school career. This idea of an assessment of learning grounded in a students’ experience and their community, may be more widely available in New Mexico thanks to the efforts of the New Mexico Public Education Department  and Future Focused through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Gates Foundation) and the Walton Family Foundation (WFF). 

High-quality, standards-aligned assessments of student learning aim to inform instructional and policy choices and help improve education outcomes. Testing and data transparency about student and school performance have helped rally educators to better understand the patterns and challenges that many students of color, low-income students and English learners often experience in school. Unfortunately, the coalition in support of high-quality assessments is fraying, while the need for high-quality assessments remains. Parents and teachers rely on assessments for timely and actionable information to support student learning—an urgent need as communities emerge from the pandemic and plan to meet the accelerated learning needs of students.1 Transforming the testing and assessment environment in K12 education will require a unique combination of strong leadership, political will and technical expertise from a broad coalition of stakeholders across policy, practice and research. 

The State Education Agencies and Charter Management Organizations leaders are designing new, innovative assessment solutions based on the needs and ideas of people most proximate to the problem (PPP): students, families, teachers and school and district leaders. In January 2020, the foundations selected eight state education agencies (SEAs) and two charter management organizations (CMOs) to participate in a planning phase of the grant program. SEA and CMO teams conceptualized and planned new approaches to assessment to address key challenges in summative assessment experienced by PPP.

Engaging in equitable design. Rather than using a more traditional form of assessment research and development, instead, Education First coaches facilitated and taught the members of each grantee team how to apply human-centered design with an equity lens to assessment redesign. We call this combination of traditional human-centered or user-centered design with a deep focus on equity “equitable design.” The deep focus on equity builds on traditional user-centered design and engages directly with communities “on the margins” for whom current solutions are not working. 

Designing at the margins. This equitable design practice positions people most proximate to the problem, who are traditionally marginalized, as leaders in the design process. They know the problems of the assessment systems well and are experts in their experience. By listening to and designing with PPP, grantees are more likely to design solutions that will work for all, instead of for more advantaged people.  In this grant program, each grantee team defines who the PPP are in their communities. For example, one of the CMOs defined PPP as high school graduates who would be first-generation college students and is designing to meet those needs.

Throughout this work, teams used equitable design to better understand the problem from the unique lens of their communities and generate ideas that meet the needs of PPP. The components of that work, exemplified by New Mexico’s Innovative Assessment Community of Practice, reflect key practices of design thinking:

  • Deep exploration of the user experience in their states—such as conducting empathy research and survey research with PPP
  • Redefining problems in assessment from the end user perspective
  • Conducting in-depth root cause analysis and examining root causes that are adaptive/human-dependent (such as power dynamics and mental models) as well as technical (such as policy or statutory constraints
  • Engaging in multiple rounds of ideation, as a team and/or with PPP directly as the designers, generating dozens of ideas and combining promising practices with new ideas
  • Selecting ideas for development into prototypes
  • Creating a theory of action and documenting and developing plans to test the prototypes

Five leadership teams are continuing their efforts to prototype and test components of an innovative assessment solution and develop a plan to pilot that solution. As the assessment landscape continues to change in response to COVID-19, the need for new high-quality assessments continues. By designing at the margins, these teams are moving traditionally-marginalized stakeholders to the center and empowering them as central to the design process. Only in understanding and acknowledging the current problems at their source can we begin to create an assessment system that benefits all students, regardless of their differences.

1A Year into the Pandemic:Parents’ Perspectives on Academics, State Assessments, and Education, Be A Learning Hero, March 2021. 68% of surveyed parents agree that year end assessments are valuable diagnostic tools

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