Question 4

4. Are the tests culturally responsive? Since culture and cultural content are inextricably woven into language, culture-free testing does not exist. Even nonverbal tests can have cultural assumptions embedded in them. Rather than trying to make tests culture-free, therefore, the challenge is to make them culturally responsive.

Culturally responsive tests have content that is first and foremost comprehensible to the learner. The issue of cultural comprehensibility is complex. In an increasingly multicultural world, most students, including English language learners, will encounter content from many different cultures as part of their schooling. This shift towards cultural pluralism and diversity is to be celebrated. However, test items are usually intended to assess a student's comprehension of academic materials, not their understanding of culture. ELLs cannot be assumed to have background knowledge of cultures different from their own.

Second, culturally responsive tests should contain no elements that convey a cultural bias. Cultural bias in testing exists when the following sorts of circumstances come into play: when preferential treatment is given to members of one group over another, when members of one group know processes that members of another group do not, or when students are not provided the background information they need to grasp the foreign cultural nuances of the subject matter on the test. According to Hambleton and Rodgers (1995), bias in testing materials can exist with reference to ethnicity, sex, culture, religion, class, or processes, and has the potential to benefit some test-takers and disadvantage others.

It is important, therefore, for curriculum developers and test writers to make sure ELLs can figure out the cultural content of test questions through context. Depending on an ELL's cultural heritage, what may be commonplace in most corners of the U.S. may be completely unfamiliar to the student.

Given the following sentence, it would be almost impossible for an Arabic-speaking ELL who had just arrived in the U.S. to figure out the meaning of the words "tamales" and "tacos":

"Linda had 3 tamales and 2 tacos before noon."

Note that with two minor changes it becomes clear that "tamales" and "tacos" refer to food.

"Linda ate 3 tamales and 2 tacos for lunch."

The words "ate" and "lunch" make it possible for the reader to infer that the words "tamales" and "tacos" refer to food items.

Other subtler aspects of culture -- such as the concept of credit -- can further confuse ELLs. Many students come from countries and cultures that operate on a cash economy where credit is never used for financial transactions. In such countries the majority of people have no credit cards or checking accounts, but line up to receive salary or pay rent. The notion of paying for something with plastic money might be foreign to students from such countries. Although these ELLs may know what a credit card looks like, they are less likely to understand the concept of credit as well as their peers who have grown up in the U.S. Compared to their U.S.-raised counterparts, these ELLs would have difficulty fathoming that interest is like "rent" paid to use money.

The following example is a word problem that would challenge a student born and raised in the U.S. Consider how much harder it would be for an ELL who has grown up in Belarus, a small country in eastern Europe, where cash is the only negotiable currency.

"Oscar bought a new sweater that cost two hundred dollars. He paid for the sweater with a credit card with a simple interest rate of 1.7 percent per month and a ten dollar fee for late payments. If Oscar's first payment of $50 was late, what would be the balance on his next monthly statement?"

This word problem could be made more comprehensible for ELLs by adding an explanation of late charges and interest. The curriculum could also be modified to ensure that ELLs have a thorough understanding not only of the language, but also of the underlying concepts involved.

There are times when it is appropriate for a test item to assess a student's mastery of cultural content. It is thus important at the outset to decide if the aim of the test item is to assess the student's knowledge of culture, or whether the test item simply assumes the student already understands the cultural content of the question. Following is an example of text that could be construed as culturally biased:

"One of the most important speeches was given by Lincoln."

If the purpose of this sentence is to assess whether or not the students remember from their course of study that Lincoln was a famous U.S. president, the sentence is fine as written. If its aim is to determine something else, however, it could be considered culturally biased against ELLs, who could easily lack background knowledge about U.S. presidents. To correct the problem, the sentence could be rewritten to read:

"One of the most important speeches in U.S. history was given by President Lincoln."

Listed below are questions to help determine if a test is culturally biased or culturally responsive:

  • Are there enough supporting details so that students can comprehend the cultural content being provided?
  • Do the testing materials show bias that relates to ethnicity, sex, culture, religion, class, or processes?
  • Have members of different cultural groups been represented?
  • Are members of different cultural groups positively portrayed?
  • Have the test developers made sure that the cultural content is comprehensible to all the test takers?
  • Is cultural content about the students' home culture and language accurate and up-to-date?
  • Are members of different class groups positively portrayed?
  • Are there traditional and non-traditional depictions of gender?