Dr. Jan McArthur Lancaster University

The Dark Arts of Assessment:  from SMART to social justice

Of all the practices that make up higher education, assessment is the one where clear procedures and reliable outcomes are surely most important. Much of the assessment that takes place in higher education leads on to professional accreditation, and as a society we rightfully expect certain guarantees in the professional knowledge of our doctors, engineers, teachers and lawyers.   And yet, I will argue that we also need graduates with socially just dispositions and ways of using their knowledge – and that nurturing these necessitates a rather different approach to learning and assessment.  Indeed, I will argue that to realise the social justice potential of assessment requires us to employ a very different set of traits and values than those covered in the familiar mantra of ‘SMART’ assessment.  Assessment for social justice requires that we embrace the parts of assessment that lie in shadow from the harsh, artificial light of an audit culture.  It requires a far less familiar or concrete set of traits, such as honesty and forgiveness.  To be clear, however, this does not involve a romanticised view of what assessment can and should be.  Rather, I will argue that a social justice approach to assessment ensures we deal with conund

rums and shortcomings that are otherwise tricky to consider meaningfully.  Here, for example, I refer to the trust we require students to place in us as we assess their work, but the ritualised and instrumentalised lack of trust we place in students through such practices as those encouraged by the burgeoning plagiarism industry.  I will argue that the alternative values and practices that lie among the shadows, which may seem like dark arts compared with the clarity of our quality assurance processes, may actually hold the key to better approaches to assessment.  I will propose amendments to current mainstream assessment practices that would help to realise the social justice mission of the university.

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