Q&A: Designing Culturally Relevant Assessments With Dr. Kristen Huff & Dr. Paula Price

In a recent episode of Education Talk Radio, Dr. Kristen Huff and Dr. Paula Price discussed some of the actions the education community is taking to support diversity in education and assessment research. Dr. Huff is Vice President of Assessment and Research at Curriculum Associates and Dr. Price is dean of the College of Education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (North Carolina A&T), where she also teaches as a professor.

Curriculum Associates and North Carolina A&T have recently launched a partnership to engage in collaborative research aimed in part at eliminating testing biases in the classroom for Black and Brown students, expose university students to a spectrum of opportunities in education and research, train teachers and practitioners to become a part of the test writing and assessment process, provide scholarship support to lessen the debt burden of aspiring and existing scholars, and more. In this Q&A, learn more from Dr. Huff and Dr. Price about the partnership, as well as the challenges of testing bias, and the actions being taken to create assessments that are accurate and culturally responsive.

Curriculum Associates and North Carolina A&T have partnered to support diversity in the education and assessment fields. Before we dig deeper into the details, can you each tell me a bit about why you view one another as ideal partners in this effort?

Dr. Kristen Huff: Committing to diversity and cultural relevance in our curriculum, instruction, and assessment is an important part of our mission to serve all students and to make classrooms better for teachers and students nationwide. As we were thinking about new ways to expand this work, North Carolina A&T stood out as an ideal partner in so many ways. It’s the nation’s largest Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and has a stellar college of education, which provides a robust group of preservice educators and current teachers to work with, to ensure the work has impact. NC A&T also has such a willingness and eagerness to partner with us on the research, giving us optimism that over time we can make real progress in resolving some of the nation’s most pressing educational needs for traditionally marginalized students―particularly what can we do to address and attempt to eliminate the persistent bias and adverse impact in the field of assessment.

Dr. Paula Price: Curriculum Associates, more than any company I’ve come across, is willing to look critically and deeply at their products and involve educators and teachers and researchers in that process. This is all really key and it’s what makes them an ideal partner in this work. Whenever you are developing assessments or curriculum packages or any educational materials, the more that you are grounded in the research, and the more you involve actual teachers who are teaching material, the better your products are going to be because they are more reflective of the students who are going to be engaged with those assessments. We’re very thankful that Curriculum Associates is so overt with their commitment to anti-racism and equity, and we’re excited for this collaboration.

What are some of the challenges that persist, specific to assessment, for marginalized or underrepresented groups? And what is your goal for the work you’re doing in this area?

Dr. Price: Many schools have tried to become more culturally responsive in their curriculum, so we’re seeing a lot of teachers who are doing more work in that area regarding their lesson plans and instruction, but the assessments aren’t necessarily aligned. With a lack of alignment like this, assessment is not an accurate portrayal of what students know and what they can do. With this in mind, it’s very important that we look at assessments and look at ways to make them more culturally responsive, because we want to paint an accurate picture of what students know in order to support their progress and success.

As far as my goal, I would love to see us completely transform education in ways that are much more culturally congruent and culturally sustaining for students and families. If we can be explicitly anti-racist in our approaches and very intentional about how we approach cultural responsiveness, we will see a lot of improvements in education across the board. If we achieve that in K-12 classrooms, I think that improves the experience for students and then it also trickles into higher education.

We also must look at systemic inequalities, and assessment is just one of the many areas that we’ve got to really take a hard look at. There are many factors to evaluate, and just one example would be test anxiety and how we can mitigate that. This is common for a lot of students and it’s grounded in feeling afraid because you don’t understand the way that things are worded, or what the question is asking. There are different ways that we can ask questions, and use different types of words, and this all relates back to cultural responsiveness.

Where does assessment stand, in relation to curriculum and instruction, in terms of cultural responsiveness and anti-racism?

Dr. Huff: I think we’re at an inflection point in the field of educational measurement, because we’re only at the very beginning of undoing, changing, and evolving our theory, method and practices to make our assessment culturally relevant and anti-racist. The field of educational measurement does not yet reflect the students whom we serve, which is one reason why this partnership between Curriculum Associates and North Carolina A&T is so critical, so we can go about figuring out this problem collaboratively with diverse educators and faculty.

To give you an example: Analogy questions from standardized tests have frequently been called out when they become public. “A yacht is to a marina as…” and so forth. Using these types of terms is a clear example of bias, because only a small sample of students would have the context and life experience to understand those terms.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, the field of educational measurement has been intentional about stripping out this kind of bias, and has done a tremendous job of it. However, we can go deeper. We know that students, especially students from historically and currently oppressed populations, do better in learning when they can make meaning of the content, engage with it, and see it reflecting their lived experience. But assessments are so dry and so neutral now, that there is a lack of engagement. So, even with these well-intentioned changes, there remains an inherent bias and we have an indication that the assessments still aren’t an accurate representation of what students know. We need to rethink what an assessment can look like to be free of bias. We did version 1.0 over the last few decades and now it’s time to take it to the next evolution.

Can we find a way to create assessments that are relevant to every culture while maintaining the necessary rigor?

Dr. Price: Absolutely, yes we can. Sometimes there is a misconception about culturally responsive education and about what it means to have better representation within assessment. It doesn’t mean that you are sacrificing anything in terms of rigor or in terms of assessing particular skills―it just means that you are creating more entry points for various students to have contextual information to understand and engage with what they’re being asked. You can very easily assess if a student understands capitalization, periods, and utilizing quotation marks correctly. All of those are conventions you can easily assess, just as much with a culturally-based story as one with all white male characters. What you might find is that if you have more varied passages or stories where you’re trying to assess some of those skills, students might be more engaged in those stories and might connect to them. If you can imagine it, they might even enjoy reading passages or be excited about the test.

What are some of the actions Curriculum Associates is taking to improve assessment?

Dr. Huff: Our goal is to be at the tip of the spear with creating culturally responsive assessments. We need to create epiphanies in the field of educational measurements and that’s what we’re doing. We have a panel of national experts that meets on a monthly basis to help us think through those issues and we’re looking deeply at our assessment design practices. As I described earlier, the industry standard practice is to remove as much context as possible. That was from an intent of leveling the playing field but we need to change that, and we need to think more specifically about what it means for assessment to be culturally relevant and to be anti-racist.

We’re also looking at ways that we can more helpfully disaggregate and report testing data. These racial and ethnic categories as reported can be very misleading. For example, black high-income urban students are likely to have a different educational performance trend than their peers in poor rural areas. We need to disaggregate the data that we have and really understand what’s happening with those trends.

A third thing that I want to underscore is to reinforce something Paula has said: we need to have the teacher voice at the table. So we’re really excited about leveraging not only the scholars and faculty of North Carolina A&T but their preservice and in-service teaching network, as well as the student voice, and we are in the process of figuring that part out. For example, if we are developing questions for middle schoolers, how do we get the middle school voice at the table earlier in the process so we’re not making assumptions? We need students who feel engaged and, as Paula said, potentially even excited about an assessment. In order to do that, they need to have agency and voice in the decisions we’re making about how we are assessing them. So we are looking at the best ways to accomplish this.

To hear much more from Dr. Kristen Huff and Dr. Paula Price, listen to their interview on Education Talk Radio, “Actions to Support Diversity in Assessment & The Daily Classroom.”

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