Culture and Assessment: Discovering What Students Really Know

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How can we know what students know? 

At first glance, the answer seems simple. After teaching students new information and giving them time to practice the concepts or skills, we assess their understanding with a quiz or test. To find out how one student or a group of students compares to peers, we standardize the tests so that all students answer equally challenging questions. 

But what if the way we ask the questions unintentionally causes some students to fail? What if our assessments miss uncovering the depth and complexity of knowledge because they contain assumptions about language, culture, values, and experiences that these students don’t share?

These concerns have inspired decades of work by Sharon Nelson-Barber, former Director of WestEd’s Center for the Study of Culture and Language in Education. The center’s research focused primarily on how culture, language, and socioeconomic status influence the ways people think and solve problems.

More recently, Nelson-Barber has been exploring how cultural background, particularly of indigenous students, may affect performance on large-scale standardized achievement tests and what can be done to make the assessments more accessible and equitable. 

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