ERIC Identifier: ED391111
Publication Date: 1995-01-30
Author: Schmeiser, Cynthia B.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.
Ethics in Assessment. ERIC Digest.
Every profession has distinct ethical obligations to the public. These
obligations include professional competency, integrity, honesty,
confidentiality, objectivity, public safety, and fairness, all of which are
intended to preserve and safeguard public confidence. Unfortunately, all too
often we hear reports in the media of moral dilemmas and unethical behavior by
professionals. These reports naturally receive considerable attention by the
public, whose confidence in the profession is undermined with each report.
Those who are involved with assessment are unfortunately not immune to
unethical practices. Abuses in preparing students to take tests as well as in
the use and interpretation of test results have been widely publicized. Misuses
of test data in high-stakes decisions, such as scholarship awards,
retention/promotion decisions, and accountability decisions, have been reported
all too frequently. Even claims made in advertisements about the success rates
of test coaching courses have raised questions about truth in advertising. Given
these and other occurrences of unethical behavior associated with assessment,
the purpose of this digest is to examine the available standards of ethical
practice in assessment and the issues associated with implementation of these
EXISTING ETHICAL STANDARDS
Concerns about ethical practices
in assessment are not new. As early as 1972, the National Council on Measurement
in Education (NCME), the Association for Measurement and Evaluation in Guidance
(AMEG), and the American Association for Counseling and Development (AACD is now
known as the American Counseling Association) developed a position paper on the
responsible use of tests that was intended to ensure that tests are given, and
examinees are treated, fairly and wisely (AMEG, 1972). Later in the 1970s, AACD
developed a statement on the responsibilities of the users of standardized
tests, a document that was revised as recently as 1989 (AACD, 1989). Both of
these early documents recognized the need to positively influence the practices
of those who use tests in ways that promote responsible use. These statements
have been followed by the development of ethical standards by a number of other
organizations having an interest, or directly involved, in assessment. These
standards address assessment practices and related issues for various
professionals: psychologists (American Psychological Association, 1992);
counselors (American Association for Counseling and Development, 1988; 1989);
educational researchers (American Educational Research Association, 1992);
teachers (American Federation of Teachers, National Council on Measurement in
Education, National Education Association, 1990); measurement specialists
(American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association,
National Council on Measurement in Education 1985; Joint Committee on Testing
Practices, 1988); educational evaluators (Joint Committee on Standards for
Educational Evaluation, 1988); evaluators of educational programs (Joint
Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation, 1994); college admission
counselors (National Association of College Admission Counselors, 1988); and
others. The National Council on Measurement in Education is considering the
adoption of a Code of Professional Responsibilities in Educational Measurement
in the fall 1994. All of these codes vary widely in their scope: some include
technical standards that the professionals should meet in their practice, but
all of them include some statements about ethical responsibilities that are
intended to guide the behavior of professionals as they use assessments in their
practice. The codes that focus exclusively on ethics that have been adopted by
professions are intended to clarify the expectations of professional conduct in
various situations encountered in practice and to affirm that the profession
intends and expects its members to recognize the ethical dimensions of their
practice. The fact that all of these standards exist is evidence that these
organizations are seriously concerned and committed to promoting high "technical" standards for assessment instruments and high "ethical" standards
for individual behavior as they work with assessments.
In recent years, there have been increasing discussions in the professions
about how to make sure that proper ethical conduct is not only advocated as an
ideal but also practiced. Yet, even once a code of ethics has been adopted, each
organization has had to struggle with issues of both enforcement and education.
TO ENFORCE OR NOT TO ENFORCE?
Whether a code of ethics will
be enforced and how it will be enforced has been a dilemma for most
organizations. Even with the codes cited earlier, there is a great deal of
variability in the approaches taken by the adopting organizations to enforce the
codes. There appears to be at least four general approaches to enforcement.
First, some organizations have no formal enforcement of their codes; the
standards are designed to increase the awareness of their members as to what
constitutes ethical practice and to serve as an affirmation of exemplary
conduct. Organizations like AERA and NCME have no formal enforcement mechanism,
typically have no sanctions attached to membership in the organization, and
membership is not tied to a credential in any way.
Second, some organizations enforce their codes of ethics at the local level.
The national organizations delegate enforcement to affiliated state societies
that have adopted the national code in whole or in part as their state society's
code of ethics. This type of enforcement is used, for example, by the legal
profession in that the American Bar Association's ethical codes serve as model
legislation for state bars to use in creating and enforcing their own codes.
Third, some organizations enforce their codes at the national level. The ways
in which enforcement is handled at the national level varies significantly.
Organizations like the American Counseling Association and the American
Psychological Association have established special divisions or committees as
enforcement arms. Other organizations have established trial boards that
adjudicate disciplinary charges and impose discipline; in other organizations,
local chapters refer cases to the national ethics committee for adjudication and
The fourth model involves enforcement at both the national and local level.
For instance, the American Medical Association might take disciplinary action
against a member when the state medical association to which the physician
belongs requests or consents to such action. At this time, however, there does
not appear to be an assessment-related organization that uses this type of
The approach taken by a professional organization to enforce its code of
ethics is usually directly related to the purpose of the code and the
requirements for practice. If membership in the organization is voluntary, it is
difficult to establish a formal means of discipline and enforcement. Certainly,
membership in such an organization could be revoked, but it would not prevent
the member from practicing. By contrast, when membership in the professional
organization is tied to a credential or a designation of some type, then
establishing a formal means of discipline and enforcement (such as
formal/informal reprimands, revocation of designation, or expulsion from the
profession) is easier to establish and implement.
Nearly all organizations that have adopted a
code of ethical assessment practices engage in educational activities that are
intended to promote a greater understanding of what constitutes ethical
assessment practice. Educational activities are particularly important since a
code of ethics is not a set of givens, but rather a frame of reference for the
evaluation of the appropriateness of behavior. Case studies can serve as
particularly effective illustrations of how ethical issues may be analyzed and
how judgment may be used to evaluate behavior. Other effective educational
approaches include open forums for discussions of ethical issues, disseminating
realistic problems that involve judgments about appropriateness of behavior, and
group learning activities that pose ethical dilemmas that are analyzed and
evaluated by groups of professionals. Regardless of the approach taken,
dissemination of the codes supported by real-life examples of ethical dilemmas
are effective ways of promoting an understanding of ethical assessment practice.
Promoting ethical practices in assessment is
considered to be a very important goal of the organizations involved in
assessment. Codes are intended to increase the awareness of ethical practice
among their memberships and to promote ethical uses of assessment in various
contexts: teaching, counseling, evaluation, research, among others.
The level of enforcement that each organization takes is directly tied to the
character of membership in the organization, whether it is voluntary or tied to
a credential or designation. Clearly, the more stringent the requirements are
for membership in an organization, the easier it is for that organization to
establish a more formal means of discipline and enforcement.
Educating others to understand and to engage in ethical practices is a
critical goal. Illustrations of good and bad practice within realistic
assessment contexts and discussions of ethical dilemmas are excellent ways of
promoting ethically responsible practice in assessment.
American Association for Counseling and
Development (now American Counseling Association) (1988). Ethical standards of
the American Counseling Association. Alexandria, VA: Author.
American Association for Counseling and Development (now American Counseling
Association) and Association for Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and
Development (now Association for Assessment in Counseling) (1989).
Responsibilities of users of standardized tests: RUST statement revised.
Alexandria, VA: Author.
American Educational Research Association, American Psychological
Association, National Council of Measurement in Education (1985). Standards for
educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: APA.
American Educational Research Association (1992). Ethical standards of the
American Educational Research Association. Washington, DC: Author.
American Federation of Teachers, National Council on Measurement in
Education, National Education Association (1990). Standards for teacher
competence in educational assessment of students. Washington, DC: Author.
American Psychological Association (1992). Ethical principles of
psychologists and code of conduct. Washington, DC: Author.
Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (1988). The personnel
evaluation standards: How to assess systems for evaluating educators. Newberry
Park, CA: Sage.
Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (1994). The program
evaluation standards: How to assess evaluations of educational programs.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
National Association of College Admission Counselors (1988). Statement of
principles of good practice. Alexandria, VA: Author.
The responsible use of tests: A position paper of AMEG, APGA and NCME (1972).
Measurement and Evaluation in Guidance, 4(2), 385-388.