How can school assessment be fair in a time of COVID-19 disruption?

In this post, Associate Professor Jill Willis explores the concept of fairness in assessment, during the COVID-19 disruption.

Once teachers and students work out how to do their schooling by distance, the next question will be about assessment. How can assessment be fair in the time of Covid-19?

Ensuring fairness by design

Assessment is fair when a number of conditions are met. School leaders, teachers and systems can meet these conditions by asking themselves the following questions:

  1. Have the most important things you want students to learn been made clear?
  2. Has it been made clear what successful performance of these important things could look like for students?
  3. Have students had the opportunity to learn these important things?
  4. Have students had the opportunity to check that they understand what has been taught, and to adjust their learning before they are assessed?
  5. Does the assessment enable students to demonstrate what they know?
  6. Do the teachers who are making judgements have support to check their decision making is trustworthy, and comparable to judgements made by other teachers?
  7. Are there ways to give students and their carers feedback on how the assessment results can inform future actions?

These questions are not new for educators, but they can provide guidance as assessment routines and systems are rapidly redesigned.

It is important to know that there is a lot of flexibility.

For example, in Covid-19 classes, it maybe that not every important thing can be taught, so decisions about the most important things need to be made:

  • De-clutter the curriculum.
  • Focus on the essentials.
  • More depth, less breadth.

Be reassured by remembering that successful assessment performance can take a variety of forms. Students can demonstrate their “understanding of cause and effect in natural ecosystems” in many ways: for example through diagrams, a voice recording, essay, media presentation, or question and answer session. A successful performance is one that reflects student understanding of cause and effect and their knowledge about natural ecosystems, both of which would have needed to be taught to students.

Maybe not as many assessment tasks are needed to achieve this or perhaps large tasks can be made into smaller ones. The Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority on March 26th have been proactive in reducing the number of internal Year 12 assessment tasks. NAPLAN will also not occur in 2020.

Opportunities to learn

It is also important to know that if one of the above conditions outlined in the 7 questions is not met, then the fairness of the assessment system is questionable. Critically, in this time of Covid-19, not every child will have had similar opportunities to learn.

Some subjects require physical materials or activities to learn. Sickness, unemployment and internet access are barriers. Other more invisible barriers include difficulties with attention and language or accessibility of resources for those with hearing or visual impairments.

The good news is that there are ways to support students at each stage, and there are policy and legal frameworks to enable differentiation.

This is not easy work though. Making adjustments for students depends on teachers getting to know their students and their circumstances. It takes time and energy, even when teachers and students are turning up to the same place.

Many more students and families are now facing diverse and challenging circumstances. Teachers and students and support staff are not as easily able to stay connected and ‘in step’ with one another. Differentiating and making adjustments in the current climate is demanding even more of our teachers.

Parents and students can support teachers to do this work by keeping teachers informed of what is happening, and by being patient as their child’s teachers work out how to make things work. Teachers can be patient with parents and students as they also learn how to learn under new conditions.

Opportunities for innovation

In times of Covid-19, systems built around assessment will need to change.  There will need to be new ways to check for consistency of assessment results, and reconsideration about what decisions can be informed by those results. Assessment results for students get used for many far-reaching impacts that range from student entry to further study, to school performance evaluations, and even school funding.

The good news is that teachers, school leaders and policy makers are aware of the challenges. No one has to work this out on their own.

This is a problem around the world. Teachers are encouraged to connect with their local, national and international peers to share stories of new online learning practice and assessment.

Assessment is ultimately a process of looking back to see what has been learned. In years to come we will see that there have been some really important things we have learned in 2020, hopefully including some creative and new possibilities for fair assessment.

To get to a point where there are good outcomes, we need to keep asking these 7 small questions – together and as decisions start to be made – so that we can answer the big question: How can school assessment be fair in a time of Covid-19 disruption?


Jill Willis is an Associate Professor in Education and C4IE Engagement and Learning Program co-leader. Her research investigates how learners navigate performance expectations in assessment systems, for greater success and agency. Associate Professor Willis is currently co-leading the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project with Professor Linda Graham, investigating how to design formative and summative assessment to be more accessible (2019-2022).


  • Julie Jackman

    Children have re-entered classrooms with a skip in their step – they are wanting to be in the classroom. It would be negligent of us, as educators, not to respond to their enthusiasm. As a teacher, I am viewing my classroom through a clearer, more focused lens. Assessment for ‘assessments sake’ or as a data drive from ‘above’ is slowly changing as ‘those in the know’ begin to understand and reel from how a Pandemic can impact education. Quality not quantity. Thank you for your article.

  • Tania Sewell

    Seems to be the perfect time to adjust school entry age nationally. If all students from pre-school to university repeated this year we could move the school entry age a year forward and give children another year at learning through play

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