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The Ethics of Writing Assessments

ABOVE: In a program designed to improve assessment literacy, Masters of Education students in David Slomp's class share and critically reflect upon their construct maps—a foundation of ethical assessment design.

In the national debate surrounding the efficacy of standardized testing, specialists in writing instruction are focusing on a key element seldom discussed in mainstream media and often overlooked by school leaders.

What, these scholars ask, are the ethical considerations in the development of fair and meaningful assessment of a student’s writing ability?

In a recent interview, Norbert Elliot, Professor Emeritus at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, spoke with equal parts clarity and passion.

“When we talk about ethics in writing assessment, we’re talking about fairness,” he explains. “The key question is, ‘Should we do any kind of assessment in which groups of students are demonstrably disenfranchised from the process?’” 

His answer, of course, is a firm “no.”

Elliot notes that different groups of students experience markedly different results on national tests.

“It might be because the students have a curriculum that is not aligned with the test’s contents,” he says.

“But it might also be about the form or the structure of the test itself. If it’s because the test poorly represents the writing construct, we shouldn’t be giving the test, and certainly shouldn’t be making decisions about students based on the test.” 

He adds, “If these tests served white populations as poorly as they serve other populations, we would have gotten rid of them four generations ago.”

Mya Poe, of Northeastern University, addresses the ethical dimension of writing assessment with a reminder that statistics are not the end goal. 

“These tests are about people,” she says. “We’re making decisions about people, about students. The consideration of ethics should be the first requirement in the process.”

 To ensure the fair development and administration of writing assessments, Poe calls for greater “assessment literacy” from all involved.

 “It means ensuring that teachers have a working understanding of different evaluation methods,” she explains. 

At the center of that understanding lie core, guiding questions:

What are the different methods available for evaluating different kinds of literacy?

What, precisely, is a given assessment attempting to measure?

How is the construct of writing being captured on that assessment?  

Poe adds a further question that is seldom asked. “I want teachers and administrators to ask, from the beginning, ‘When are we going to conduct a formal review?’” she says. “Will it be every three years, every five? When will we look at our practices to determine their effectiveness?” 

Are you an NCTE member? Read Norman Allen's full interview, including comments from Bob Broad, Norbert Elliot, Mya Poe, and David Slomp on the March 2016 Council Chronicle page. 

Thinking about joining? Learn what it means to be part of the NCTE community.

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NCTE - The National Council of Teachers Of English

A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts