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Assessment and Diversity in Irish Schools

 

Citation: Burns, D., Brown, M., McNamara, G. and O’Hara, J. (2017) Summary of Assessment and Diversity in Irish Schools. Dublin: EQI – The Centre for Evaluation Quality and Inspection
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Introduction

This summary of the literature review of assessment in Ireland includes, firstly, the assessment system in Ireland at secondary level and the main issues addressed in assessment literature in Ireland relevant to culturally responsive assessment. Secondly, the summary includes the literature survey of culturally responsive assessment in the United States.  

This study adopts a definition for “Culture” that is described as a “cognitive” approach to culture because the project concerns the elements of culture related to “thinking, teaching, learning and making meaning” (Citing Fetterman, Trumbull and Rothstein-Fisch, 2008, p. 3). The project is concerned with cultural dimensions to ways of knowing, epistemology, world-view, beliefs and values. The term “culturally responsive” is interpreted to mean sensitive to, respectful of, taking cognisance of, cultural variations in ways of thinking/knowing, learning, making meaning, values and beliefs.  

Assessment at Secondary Level

Students commence 1st Year of secondary after an eight-year cycle of primary schooling, so students are about 12 years of age when entering secondary which consists of three years of Junior cycle, an optional transition year and two years of Senior cycle.

At the end of Junior cycle, students are awarded a Certificate which is equal to level 2 of the European Qualifications Framework.   Currently, the Junior Certificate is awarded based on national examinations that are set and administered by the State Examinations Commission.  Assessment in Junior cycle is currently undergoing change which is being phased in gradually commencing with one subject in 2016/2017 and will be introduced in all subjects in 2022.  The reform includes two classroom-based assessments which will be reported on the Certificate separately from the results of the State examinations.

At the end of the Senior cycle, students are awarded a Leaving Certificate which is considered to be level 3 in the European Qualifications Framework. Proposals for reform of assessment in the Leaving Certificate were published in 2004 but have not been implemented.  The established Leaving Certificate (followed by the vast majority of students), for which most students study seven subjects, is assessed externally by the State Examinations Commission, mainly with final written examinations.  

In both Senior and Junior cycle, Teachers use informal and formal assessment and reports of formal assessments are distributed to parents.  In 3rd and 6th Year students typically sit “Mock” examinations in preparation for the State examinations.  Ireland participates in the international standardised assessments of PISA and TIMSS.  

Media coverage of educational issues in Ireland is extensive.  Media interest in the written examination papers each year is intense and proposals for reform of national assessment are debated in the media.  

Issues relevant to Culturally responsive Assessment

The aspiration to respect diversity is enshrined in Irish educational legislation since 1998.  Ireland has two significant reports: one published in 2006 by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on guidelines for schools for intercultural education, including a chapter on assessment.  In 2010 the Department of Education and Skills published a strategy for intercultural education from 2010 to 2015.  These publications were prompted by the sudden changing demographic in Ireland since the increase in significant immigration that commenced in the late 1990s but has slowed since 2008.  The 2006 document emphasises that all students be enriched by diversity and that minority students be valued with equal respect and opportunity.     The report acknowledges the ways that cultural or language factors can give rise to errors in assessment and makes recommendations for assessment to minimise potential errors.  

Research on the experience of migrant students in Ireland over the past 15 or so years points to: a school system unprepared for the influx, inadequate systems for recording data, difficulties in accessing schools and gaining appropriate placements in year levels and programmes.  The research also suggests that migrant students have high motivation and educational aspirations.  

Conclusion

Research in Ireland suggests there are limitations of the national assessment of the State examination in the Leaving Certificate, in the claims that it promotes rote learning and measures a narrow range of lower-order skills. Literature on school-based assessment encourages a range of assessment methods that are alternatives to the traditional written test, such as performance-based, peer and self-assessment, portfolio and e-portfolio assessments.  

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Aiding Culturally Responsive Assessment in Schools (ACRAS)

Summary: Conceptual Framework



Introduction

This summary conceptual framework for the ASCRAS project is based on the outcomes of the literature surveys conducted by the four partner countries. The purpose of this paper is: to draw together the themes and concepts in the literature and the questionnaires in order to point some direction for the future of the project. As such, the paper has application and relevance for the general issue of culturally responsive assessment at secondary level. The paper is set out with definitions, seven themes that emerged from the literature and the questionnaire followed by the concepts that were included in each of the themes.

A.0 Rationale

To date, most of the literature on culturally responsive issues addresses learning and pedagogy (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011). The focus on culturally responsive teaching and learning has arisen because of the documented inequality in educational achievement of minority cultural groups (for example, Bradshaw, O’Brennan & McNeely, 2008; Raines, Dever, Kamphaus & Roach, 2012). The need to address assessment that is culturally responsive is considered a legal requirement, as well as fairness, ethics and the desirability of diversity. While curriculum and assessment systems differ in the four project partner countries with different levels of centrality and uniformity, classroom assessment is a common feature.

B.0 Definitions

B.1 Culture

The paper adopts an OECD (2016, p. 7) definition of culture which implies that each individual occupies a unique cultural position and that cultural affiliations are fluid, that an individual student in the classroom may have a sense of identity and belonging that is derived from a constellation of cultures. Another perspective on culture is described as a “cognitive” approach to culture because it concerns the elements of culture related to “thinking, teaching, learning and making meaning” (Citing Fetterman, Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull, 2008, p. 3).

B.2 Assessment

This project includes in the definition of assessment the design of assessment instruments, the process of conducting the assessment with students and the outcomes of the assessment. This project is focusing on the gamut of classroom assessment, so it includes formal and informal assessment, oral, written and other modes that are applied to classroom assessment.

 

B.3 Culturally responsive assessment

Following the two definitions above, culturally responsive assessment therefore is adopted to mean assessment design, processes and outcomes that take cognisance of cultural variations in ways of behaving/socialising and thinking.

 

C.0 Seven themes

To present the concepts discovered in the literature survey and the exploratory questionnaire of schools, seven overarching themes were distilled.

1. The intersection between culture and assessment

2. Assessment and fairness

3. Assessment and cultural dimensions

4. All students benefit from culturally responsive assessment

5. Possibility of culturally responsive assessment

6. Challenge for teachers

7. Supports needed by teachers for culturally responsive assessment

D.0 Concepts included in the seven themes

D.1 The intersection between culture and assessment

D.1.1 Multicultural validity

As validity is a foundational notion of assessment, it must be considered in relation to culture. For students who may be in process of learning the language of the test instrument, construct validity may be a serious validity concern if the “linguistic complexity unnecessarily interferes with pupils’ ability to illustrate their knowledge” in the situation where language factors are “unrelated to the measured construct” such as mathematics (DeBacker, Van Avermaet & Slembrouck, 2017). LaFrance, Kirkhart and Nichols (2015) explore the connection between validity and culture, with awareness that validity does not carry “the same meaning across cultural contexts” (p. 50). Drawing on earlier work of Kirkhart, the authors propose a definition for “multicultural validity” as “the accuracy and trustworthiness of understandings and actions across simple, intersecting dimensions of cultural difference” (p. 57). Multicultural validity embraces five elements, both qualitative and quantitative:

Theory (rationales support the inferences and actions based on assessment) Methodology (design and measurement)

Relationship (among all forms of life including interactions among people) Experience (congruence with the lived experience of participants)

Consequence (justice of outcomes)

(LaFrance et al, 2015, pp. 58-60).







D.1.2 Assessment and cognitive culture

Section B.1 pointed out that the cognitive approach to culture is concerned with cultural dimensions to ways of learning and epistemology. While these dimensions are relevant to the intersection between culture and assessment, their impact on student performance in assessment is described in some detail in section D.3 below.

 

D.1.3 Assessment and majority/minority cultures

Students with a migration background usually have cultural affiliations and identities that are different from the dominant culture. Several studies report on the conflict experienced by teenagers between home values and school values (for example, Walsh, 2017).

 

Some research on the outcomes of international assessments such as PISA indicates a large performance difference between children with the assessment language as their first language and children who have the assessment language as their second language (Herzog-Punzenberger, 2017,

p. 8; Nusche, Shewbridge & Lamhauge Rasmussen 2009, p.7). Kim and Zabelina (2015) suggest that one of the reasons for the persistence in performance difference is that most standardised tests are “normed using the scores of majority group populations” and it “may be inappropriate to use the same assessments with individuals of various racial/ethnic minority groups without norming the instrument to reflect those groups” (p.130).

D.1.4 Language matters

Each of the four partner countries reports the presence of students with a migration background for whom the language of the classroom is not their first language. Students currently in the secondary system may have been born abroad or be the children of parents born abroad. The status, education level and location (urban/rural) of immigrant parents can be factors but the most significant factor in educational achievement for students is the family proximity to the language of the classroom (Engen & Kulbrandstad, 2004; Hvitstendal, 2006, 2008; Özerk, 2001; Randen, 2015; Stevenson & Willot, 2007).

 

Responses to linguistic diversity in schools vary. Lack of proficiency in the dominant language can lead to approaches of the “deficit” model where students are considered a “problem” or a “risk” (Luciak, 2010) needing compensatory education similar to education for students with special needs (Portera, 2008). At times, school policy has insisted that only the dominant language was to be spoken in the school environment, in corridors and playgrounds. This negative response can devalue student’s culture and language and “can have a negative impact on their overall achievement and motivation” (Herzog-Punzenberger, Le Pichon-Vorstman & Siarova, 2017, p. 24). Many researchers share criticism of this negative response and strongly support multilingualism in schools (for example, Conteh & Meier, 2014; DeBacker et al, 2017; ECML, 2007; Hancock, 2014; Luciak, 2010). Such works emphasise:

Positivity to all languages

Teachers need to use the languages of students as a resource

Giving time to students’ first language helps students to learn a second language more

efficiently

Multilingualism gives students the ability to use language resources to negotiate many

different social and academic situations confidently

All mainstream teachers have to become competent in diverse classrooms The best place for second language learners is in the mainstream classroom

This practice leads to increase in learner autonomy and to meta language awareness.

 

The European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML, 2007) considers that students need to develop a linguistic repertoire in order to “have easier access to specific languages or cultures by using aptitudes acquired in relation to/in another language or culture” (p. 9). As Herzog-Punzenberger et al, (2017) indicate, “multilingualism is becoming more a way of life than a problem to be solved” (p. 8). Many comments from school personnel in the open-ended comments of the questionnaire indicate that school personnel may not be in alignment with the principles espoused above by the ECML and other authors of linguistic diversity.

D.1.5 Homogeneity or diversity in the class group

Devine (2005) cites Lynch and Lodge (2002) in the claim that teachers tend to “homogenise” students as a group, “overshadowing differences that may exist” (p. 53). Whether a country has a long or a short history of immigration, empirical research has documented the frequent negative discourse of school personnel about migrant students (for example, Hancock, 2017; Lyons, 2010). Opposed to this position of school personnel, is the oft-stated desirability of diversity as a benefit for all students.

D.2 Assessment and fairness

D.2.1 Meaning of “fairness” in assessment

Fairness has become a central concept in the impetus for culturally responsive assessment, mainly as a result of the research on the educational achievement gap for students of different racial/ethnic minorities (Warikoo & Carter, 2009). The American Psychological Association’s 2004 document, Code of Fair Testing Practices in Education and also the 2014 edition of Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA, NCME) emphasise the obligation to design tests that are fair to all test takers.The literature reveals considerable agreement that fairness in assessment means:

 

Recognising diversity of culture

Acknowledging the knowledge and skill that students bring with them to school Being free from bias toward a particular group

Respecting and articulating construct validity.

 

In addressing this complex issue of fairness, Gipps and Stobart (2004) cite Linn, 1992 in concluding:

An important approach to offering fairness is to use, within any assessment programme, a range of assessment tasks involving a variety of contexts; a range of modes within the assessment; and a range of response format and style. This broadening of approach, though not always possible, is most likely to offer pupils alternative opportunities to demonstrate achievement if they are disadvantaged by any one particular assessment in the programme (p. 33).

D.2.2 Absence of fairness

 

Literature documents the hazards that occur if a deficit model rather than a model of respect for difference is dominant in a school/classroom/assessment. As well as inequality in educational achievement and early school leaving the absence of fairness can lead to low levels of motivation, morale, engagement and collaboration (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011, p. 75).

D.3 Assessment and cultural dimensions

D.3.1 Background to cultural dimensions

Hofstede’s 1980 publication has been revised and expanded in 2001 and often further developed by other authors. Parrish and Linder-VanBerschot (2010) synthesised this work to posit a Framework for Cultural Differences to identify dimensions of cultural difference most likely to impact situations of teaching, learning and assessment. However, a caveat must be noted. As mentioned in the OECD quote in section B.1, “cultural affiliations are dynamic and fluid.” Recognising that culture interacts with human nature and personality, Parrish and Linder-VanBerschot (2010) maintain that the Framework dimensions do not describe “either/or conditions but spectrums along which both cultures and individuals vary” (p. 5). While it is useful to describe cultural differences along these dimensions, “within any culture individuals will differ in how strongly they display these tendencies” (p. 5). In addition, individual students with a migration background will differ in the level of participation in a minority culture and in the level of acculturation to a dominant culture.

D.3.2 Identified cultural dimensions

Parrish and Linder-VanBerschot (2010) identify eight dimensions in three groups (p. 7 – 9) which they claim represent values (p. 6):

 

Social relationships: equality and authority, individualism and collectivism, nurture and

challenge

Epistemological beliefs: stability seeking and uncertainty acceptance, logic argumentation

and being reasonable, causality and complex systems

Temporal perceptions: clock time and event time, linear time and cyclical time. (pp. 7–9)

The Framework suggests ways that each of these dimensions is manifest in learning situations.

D.4 All students benefit from culturally responsive assessment

As well as the migration of peoples the call for cultural responsiveness is based on the trend towards globalisation which Portera (2008) defines as the “spread of the mass media in our daily lives, the growth of information technology, profound geo-political changes, and the establishment of new markets” (p. 481). The need for all young people to learn the normality of diversity and to develop the skills of living in harmonious diversity is urgent.

 

Researchers who support plurilingualism in classrooms maintain that all students benefit with increase in: language awareness (Hancock, 2017), well-being, self-efficacy and motivation (DeBacker et al, 2017), learner autonomy (Kirwan, 2017). DeBacker et al (2017) report that students who conducted a task in Physics in different languages “appeared to strengthen the concepts the pupils gained.” Questionnaire responses indicate the conviction of school personnel that cultural diversity can benefit all students in developing tolerance, respect and cohesion.

D.5 Possibility of culturally responsive assessment

D.5.1 Criteria for culturally responsive assessment

The APA’s 2004 Code of Fair Testing Practice in Education is designed for application to culturally responsive assessment as well as to a wider number of assessment situations. The Code provides 31 guidelines under four headings: A. Developing and selecting appropriate tests, B. Administering and scoring tests, C. Reporting and interpreting tests results, D. Informing tests takers.

 

Publications over the past twenty years can be synthesized with the Code to provide a way of considering criteria for culturally responsive classroom assessment. Bringing the concerns of multicultural validity (section D.1.1) and cultural dimensions (section D.3.2) together to consider the implications for classroom assessment for students with a migration background yields questions that can interrogate classroom assessment, in preparation, execution and outcomes. On this basis, the following questions are formulated:

 

Preparation:

What is the purpose of the assessment? What construct is being assessed and has that

been communicated to students? What is the rationale for setting standards for the assessment?

Are participants in assessment provided in advance with information on the coverage of the

test, the types of question formats, the directions, and appropriate test-taking strategies? Are participants in assessment informed in advance of the intended purpose and use of the

test, test protocol, standards of performance and all other information relevant to the use of test results?

Execution:

Does the design, process and language of the assessment take cognisance of

o Different ways of relating to the teacher (as expert authority or as an equal) o Different ways of student engagement with learning

o Different ways of students approach to knowledge o Different student expectations of assessment

o Different ways of student collaboration

o Different ways of students experiencing failure o The lived experience of participants

Outcomes:

How will the results of the assessment be interpreted? What are the benefits and

limitations of the tests results and their interpretation? Are test results being assigned greater precision than is warranted? What are the factors influencing interpretation of results?

What are the appropriate uses of the assessment results and the potential misuses?

Are decisions about participants in assessment made on the basis of multiples of appropriate

information, rather than on a single test score? Does the assessment fulfil its intended purpose?

D.5.2 Assessment modes with potential for cultural responsiveness

A body of literature that addresses the search for assessment that has multicultural validity suggests that performance-based assessment has the potential to be more “culturally fair” (Hood, 1998a; Kim & Zabelina, 2015) than traditional tests. The term “performance-based assessment” is used to distinguish assessment strategies that tend to be different from “traditional” strategies in that performance-based strategies aim to assess the use, application or demonstration of knowledge and skill as opposed to simply the recall of knowledge. Performance-based assessment includes a wide variety of tasks.

 

A study by O’Hara, McNamara and Harrison (2015) found that peer- and self-assessment have potential for assessment that is “more learner-centric, flexible, and culturally responsive” (p. 226). Hempel and Sue-Chan (2010) and Kim and Zabelina (2015) both recommend that including creativity assessment can address cultural bias. Creativity assessment is defined as “producing something that is novel and useful” (Kim & Zabelina, 2015, p. 136). Creative tasks can include a variety beyond the obvious ones such as composing an original piece in literature/music.

D.6 Challenge for teachers

D.6.1 The type of challenge for teachers

The issue of classroom assessment of students with a migration background has significant challenges for teachers as the outcome of results can be so significant for students. The challenges are both conceptual and methodological and “remain complex, multi-faceted, context-rich” (Thompson-Robinson, Hopson, & SenGupta, 2004, p. 3).

 

The context for such a significant challenge can be drawn from both an historical/political perspective and a professional perspective. Historically, the role of schools and teachers has been very important in establishing the nation-state (Herzog-Punzenberger, 2016, p. 1). With the current movement of peoples and the geo-political changes, it is the schools and teachers that are encountering at first hand the realities of multiculturalism and multilingualism in a new way. Such a challenge can also be considered from the perspective of the professionalism of teachers as teachers understand the role of teacher as a “reflective practitioner” (Schon, 1983). Being a reflective practitioner means “becoming aware of the limits of our knowledge, of how our own behaviour plays into organisational practices and why such practices might marginalise groups or exclude individuals” (Bolton, 2010, p. 14)

The American Evaluation Association (AEA) (2011) published a statement on cultural competence which was described as “a stance taken toward culture, not a discrete status or simple mastery of particular knowledge and skills.” The statement adds, “Cultural competence is not a state at which one arrives; rather, it is a process of learning, unlearning, and relearning.” This is a daunting task, requiring the professional teacher to reflect on practice in a deep manner. The task requires “awareness of self, reflection on one’s own cultural position, awareness of others’ positions, and the ability to interact genuinely and respectfully with others” (AEA).

All authors report the significance of self-awareness and awareness of one’s own enculturation. Bennett (2009) suggests that a gap between knowledge and competence “may be due in part to being unaware of one’s own culture and therefore not fully capable of assessing the cultural position

 


of others” (p. 123). Bennett further suggests that reflection on a cultural framework to explore one’s own position can begin the process of building intercultural competence (p. 126– 127).

The literature suggests that for teachers to be serious about being a culturally responsive assessor, teachers have to be engaged in an introspective “deliberate and self-exploring” journey (Hood, Hopson & Frierson, 2015, p. xv). Teachers need to be researchers of their own culture and professionalism.

D.6.2 Teachers as researchers of their students

Section B.1 notes that individual’s cultural affiliations are dynamic and fluid and the Framework for Cultural Difference (section D.3.2) notes the ways in which cultural dimensions can be manifest in learning situations. The literature strongly desires that, in order to design valid classroom assessment that is cognisant of the cultural affiliations and language repertoires of their students, teachers consider their students with their varied life and language experience as a resource for the classroom (Conteh, 2017; Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gongalez, 1992).

D.6.3 Demands on teachers

Teachers who are products of their own culture can find it difficult for several reasons to respond positively to the demands of the situation where they have students of diverse cultural backgrounds in the class. Comments on questionnaires indicated little conviction that it is the role of the classroom teacher to be culturally competent in a diverse classroom. Comments also demonstrated the competing priorities on teacher time and attention. Some comments indicated that teachers perceive a tension between high-stakes State level assessment and classroom assessment.

 

These comments from the questionnaires indicate a contrast in the current position of many school personnel with the vision portrayed in the literature and described in sections D.6.1 and D.6.2. Despite the system-level pressures of high-stakes assessments, the challenge for teachers is to engage in reflection on practice to be culturally competent in a diverse classroom: to reflect deeply on their own enculturation and practice, to research their own students, to affirm the diverse cultural affiliation and life experience of their own students, to be a facilitator of multilingualism in the classroom, to consider the diversity of experience and language in their classroom as a resource for enrichment for all students in the class. These are the requirements for teachers to become competent in designing, conducting and using the outcomes of valid culturally responsive assessment.

D.7 Supports needed by teachers

 

The depth of the challenge for teachers requires theoretical and practical supports. Indicated supports in the questionnaires range from a need for State level recognition of the needs, policy formulations at national and local levels, professional development, resources for classroom assessment developed centrally and available online, language support. All levels of leadership in the education system need to appreciate the vision for the culturally competent teacher in a multicultural classroom so that policy, resourcing and practice at all levels will support teachers to meet the daunting challenge.

 


E.0 Conclusion

The literature surveys and questionnaires from the four partner countries yielded sixteen concepts for the project. As these concepts provide implications for future practice, they provide signposts for the data collection and data analysis in this project and the outcome of the project: a toolkit for secondary teachers for culturally responsive assessment.

The literature is drawn from many different countries implying that the issue of culturally responsive assessment is relevant in many countries. These sixteen concepts are offered as central considerations wherever the issue of culturally responsive classroom assessment at secondary level is a concern.

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