How to make school assessments fairer
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How to make school assessments fairer

How to make school assessments fairer

Australia is more culturally and linguistically diverse than ever before, yet does not adequately recognise Aboriginal students’ worldviews, knowledge or language in its school assessments, says Dr Carly Steele.

Recently released census data shows over 250 ancestries and 350 languages (ABS, 2021). Over 5.5 million people use a language other than English at home and 850,000 people report they do not speak English well or at all (ABS, 2021). Often not recognised in this census data are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who speak traditional languages as well as newly formed Indigenous contact languages such as Aboriginal Englishes and Kriol (Steele & Wigglesworth, 2021). Despite Australia’s highly diverse population, our education system measures student success according to Western linguistic and cultural systems which calls into question the fairness of these assessment regimes for its diverse students, particularly First Nations students. In our newly published paper (Steele, Dovchin & Oliver, 2022), we argue that the languages and modality of classroom assessment tasks need to be expanded to be more inclusive and fairer for all.

Current school assessment practices are English only. They do not adequately recognise the knowledge that speakers of other languages possess. Using the example of a bilingual child who speaks two languages. If judged in each of these languages separately, their knowledge could be considered deficient. If their knowledge and understanding is only judged in English, the assessment wouldn’t give a true indication of what the student knows. This wouldn’t be a fair or accurate assessment of the child.

We can make assessment fairer by allowing students to use other languages to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. This doesn’t mean 10 different assessments for students who speak 10 different languages. It means allowing students to use all the linguistic resources that they have available to them to communicate so teachers can accurately judge their knowledge and understanding of the topic being assessed. This is a translanguaging approach to learning.

“Translanguaging” is a term used to describe the ways individuals will use all their available meaning-making resources to communicate – such as signs and languages (Cenoz & Gorter, 2022). In a classroom that uses a translanguaging approach to learning, this practice is not only allowed, but actively valued. It sends the message that all languages and therefore all children, are welcome in this classroom.

Some would argue that teachers would not be able to understand what students are saying. We argue that it provides teachers with an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with children to learn about their social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. This will help teachers to see what these students are capable of in their own language/s.

Others confuse the messaging of translanguaging and say that English is necessary for success in society. We are not suggesting that students are not taught English, of course, learning a new language is a wonderful thing. We are suggesting that the best way of teaching English is through an approach that recognises and values students’ first language/s and by using these languages as a knowledge base to build upon.

Current assessment practices are not only English only, but they also favour written forms. For example, in the current system, a student’s ability to produce a Western style narrative or persuasive text is a key measure of academic success. But this is only one mode and style of communication, students from other language backgrounds use diverse modes of communication to express themselves which includes nonverbal communication. Judging these students with this narrow measure is unfair and does not adequately allow them to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.

We need to expand the methods of assessment beyond dominant written forms. Students from other cultural backgrounds, including many First Nations children use a range of modes of communication, including verbal language and forms of non-verbal communication such as signs, gestures, drawings and symbols. Inge Kral and her colleagues (2019) provide an excellent example of this in their research where a group of young women used ipads to tell traditional sand stories using their fingers on the screen which they recorded into film. These films were highly innovative as they mixed traditional icons with contemporary symbols. Why can’t these creative practices be used and valued in assessment?

Children are highly skilled language users. They employ multiple modes of communication with purpose and creativity and this needs to be recognised. Assessment practices should be expanded to include multiple languages and many modes of communication to be fairer for all.

Dr Carly Steele is a Lecturer and Early Career Researcher in the School of Education at Curtin University, Perth. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2021 which explored the role of language awareness and the use of constrastive analysis for teaching Standard Australian English as an additional language to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in primary school.

This article was originally published in Education Matters Magazine – to read the issue download it here. 

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