Creators of standardized assessments tend to avoid cultural topics in their questions based on “fairness and colorblindness.” That practice, however, may be making these sometimes high-stakes tests less fair for Black, Latino and other underrepresented students because it simply reinforces “the dominant culture of whiteness,” a new Ed Trust analysis cautions.
That’s also because “learning is inherently cultural,” said EdTrust Assistant Director of P-12 Policy Nicholas Munyan-Penney, one of the report’s authors.
“We connect new information to what we already know, including our experiences, social constructs and personal perspectives,” Munyan-Penney contends. “Attempts to remove culture from assessment questions in the name of objectivity not only privileges white perspectives but is out of step with how students learn and demonstrate their knowledge and skills.”
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Superintendents, their teams and other advocates can push for change. EdTrust describes five concepts that, with educators demanding them, would make assessments more equitable:
1. Reflect students’ own cultures and identities authentically: “Assessment items must intentionally reflect a range of racial, cultural, and ethnic identities, so that all students see aspects of their identity explicitly uplifted and affirmed in the test material.14 Assessment design choices — the selected passages, images, and questions — each provide an opportunity to uplift specific cultural elements, so they need to be diversified.”
2. Represent cultures and identities of others: “Racially and culturally inclusive assessments should provide not only mirrors for students to see their own culture and identity reflected, but also windows into other cultures. This combination of windows and mirrors within assessment items also develops a positive attitude toward cultural differences. … For every one assessment item that provides a mirror for one student, that same item offers a window for another student.”
3. Intentionally include important contextual and cultural information: “Intentionally including cultural topics that are familiar to only some students (and therefore unfamiliar to others) should be encouraged; however, assessment development companies need to carefully ensure that context is provided. This is most straightforward when cultural references in the assessment items clearly feature an obvious cultural aspect or behavior—an assessment item related to music, literature, traditions, food, fashion and festivals.”
4. Reflect student interests and intersecting elements of identity: “Assessment items must include items that showcase a range of interests, religions, abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, age, national origins, and the intersections across these identities.”
5. Honesty about students’ realities—both opportunities and challenges: “In early grades, the focus could involve items promoting inclusion, comfort and validation for all students. Subsequently, in later grades, the assessment can include items that foster cultural consciousness by discussing topics—including systems of oppression—in a nuanced way.”