Fair or equal?

This post returns to ideas from Gipps and Murphy’s book ‘A fair test?’. We use words like ‘equality’, ‘equity’ and ‘equal opportunities’ frequently, in the context of assessment and elsewhere. Gipps and Murphy deliberately talk about ‘equity’ not ‘equal opportunities’ and the UK Government talk about ‘equality’ (the 2010 Equality Act came fully into force in April 2011) – all in an attempt to make their meaning more clear. I used to think I was really clued up on all of this (as a line-manager in the UK Open University, I ask a lot of interview questions relating to equal opportunities – and I was once told that the answer I gave to an interview question of this ilk was the best that the interviewer had ever heard). However, especially in the context of assessment, I’ve come to realise that things aren’t as simple as they might appear…

At one level it’s quite straightforward – to do with not descriminating unfairly against anyone and providing everyone with a fair chance. But when you start considering the details it becomes much more tricky. There are two possible interpretations of equal opportunities which are just not right. I guess a reasonable interpretation lies somewhere in between, but where?

The two (in my opinion incorrect) extreme definitions are:

1. Just treat everyone as equal. That’s OK at face value, but equal treatment leads to distinctly unequal opportunity. In a classroom situation, if you treat all students as equal, the wheelchair user might not be able even to get into the room. In assessment, someone from a different cultural group may read something into a question that you didn’t intend.

2. Ensure that the outcomes of assessment are the same for different groups. So, in tests, you might ensure that the same percentage of girls and boys get each grade. This really happens! However it completely misses theĀ point that people of different genders may be (on average) better or worse at something. The limiting case of this approach would be to ensure that everyone gets the same results – clearly stupid!

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