Book Review: Assessment for Social Justice

Book Review: Assessment for Social Justice, by Jan McArthur

Bloomsbury Academic (2018) Hb. £63 / Ebook £21.92

Reviewed by Lydia May Townsend


Jan McArthur positions assessment as a key element of higher education and, by extension, of social justice. For McArthur, assessment plays a pivotal role in how we understand knowledge and how we realise our goals in higher education. She views social justice as a key responsibility of universities and something that needs considerable thought. In a field dominated by discussion of outcomes and social justice for students, she reframes the arguments to consider the implications of policy and practice not only for students but also for academic staff.

There is no requirement for the reader to be familiar with the main educational debates or trends in social justice discourse or practice, nor to have any philosophical training. McArthur begins by explaining her approach to social justice and cements her arguments in policy examples. In her introduction, she chooses to explain these ideas using straightforward language, using technical terminology sparingly and only with careful explanation. This ensures that the book is accessible to a novice audience. The more experienced reader would likely be familiar with many of the theorists she discusses but would still benefit from a skim through this introduction. She bases many of her later arguments on the ideas she presents here. In particular, she links her ideas on social justice to the discourse of ‘assessment for learning’.

McArthur then moves on to create a firmer theoretical base for her assertions. This section will likely be welcomed by the experienced philosopher or theorist but may prove a little challenging to the novice. She punctuates these chapters with straightforward conclusions, striking a difficult balance between the need to give a thorough theoretical base and the need be understood by those outside of or new to the field. In Chapter 1, McArthur demonstrates why assessment is an issue for achieving social justice. Her arguments are laid out very clearly. They are compelling and centred around the notion of fairness. She tackles the subject in short chunks, punctuated with subheadings and quotations. This style continues throughout the rest of the book, which allows the reader to dip in and out of chapters without losing the thread of her arguments. In Chapter 2 she builds on these arguments and demonstrates how different conceptions of social justice influence how ‘justice’ is understood in assessment. Chapter 3 builds on the arguments first explored in the introduction. She tackles Axel Honneth’s work on mutual recognition and demonstrates its place in her own understandings of social justice. This section of the book is completed with Chapter 4, which introduces social practice theories.

Part 2 of the book begins with an exploration of ‘trust’. This, and the subsequent chapters, works as a standalone essay. They build on each other in so much as they add strength to the overall argument, but they are not dependent upon each other for meaning or clarity. McArthur follows this up with chapters on honesty, responsibility, forgiveness, and responsiveness. Generally, her arguments are concise and optimistic. She gives frequent examples to demonstrate her points and chooses to rely on quotes, rather than describe the assertions made by others.

McArthur points to anonymous marking as an example of a lack of trust. She briefly gives an account of the history that led to the adoption of anonymous marking practices. Though I do not disagree with the arguments she makes against the use of anonymous marking, she does these arguments a disservice by failing to provide a more substantial critique of the situation that led to their widespread adoption. Her consideration of structural racism is minimal. To strengthen her case, she need to give more consideration to anonymous marking’s attempts and failures to tackle this structural racism.

Part 2 of the book is most useful to those wishing to engage in more socially just practices. Using concrete examples, McArthur encourages academics to question their assumptions about the justness of their practices. This is not done in an accusatory tone; rather, McArthur sheds light on existing systems and common assumptions that cause difficulty for the promotion of social justice.

Philosophers reading the book may find some of the philosophical points under-developed. On occasion, such as when discussing fairness, McArthur fails to fully relate her assertions back to the main concept of social justice. They hang independently for several pages, before meeting in a conclusion that does not fully relate to what has come before it. This is not a criticism of the book nor the author’s philosophical reasoning. Rather, it is a warning to those who might be looking for a more substantial philosophical work. McArthur seems to have made the deliberate choice to simplify arguments so they might be understood more widely. In doing so, she has sacrificed some of the depth of discussion that educational philosophers and theorists might desire, but in doing so has avoided the risk of excluding readers without a philosophical or theoretical background. This book is designed to be accessible. It is designed to be read by those whose specialisms lay outside the field of educational philosophy. Though in the most part it is a strength, it can feel a little frustrating.

This book would be suitable for the student, policy maker and academic alike. It gives both the depth needed to make it of interest to the experienced reader and the simplicity needed to engage the novice. McArthur is explicit that she wants this book to be read by academic staff. It is these staff, she says, who in their meetings and practice can push the social justice cause. She certainly presents a compelling case for such a cause, but also presents a realistic assessment of the barriers that may prevent the championing of social justice.