Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Designing Culturally Responsive and Accessible Assessments for All Adult Learners

Dr. Meredith Larson, program officer for adult education at NCER, interviewed Dr. Javier Suárez-Álvarez, associate professor and associate director at the Center for Educational Assessment, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr. Suárez-Álvarez has served as the project director for the Adult Skills Assessment Project: Actionable Assessments for Adult Learners (ASAP) grant and was previously an education policy analyst in France for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where he was the lead author of the PISA report 21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World. He and the ASAP team are working on an assessment system to meet the needs of adult education learners, educators, and employers that leverages online validated and culturally responsive banks of literacy and numeracy tasks. In this interview, Dr. Suárez-Álvarez discusses the importance of attending to learners’ goals and cultural diversity in assessment.

How would you describe the current context of assessment for adult education, and how does ASAP fit in it?

In general, the adult education field lacks assessments that meet the—sometimes competing—needs and goals of educators and employers and that attend to and embrace learner characteristics, goals, and cultural diversity. There is often a disconnect where different stakeholders want different things from the same assessments. Educators ask for curriculum-aligned assessments, learners want assessments to help them determine whether they have job-related skills for employment or promotion, and employers want to determine whether job candidates are trained in high-demand skills within their industries.

Despite these differing needs and interests, everyone involved needs assessment resources for lower skilled and culturally diverse learners that are easy to use, affordable or free, and provide actionable information for progress toward personal or occupational goals. ASAP is one of the first attempts to respond to these needs by developing an assessment system that delivers real-time customizable assessments to measure and improve literacy and numeracy skills. ASAP incorporates socioculturally responsive assessment principles to serve the needs of all learners by embracing the uniqueness of their characteristics. These principles involve ensuring that stakeholders from diverse socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, racial, and ethnic groups are represented in our test design and development activities.

Why is attending to cultural diversity important to ASAP and assessment, and how are you incorporating this into your work?

U.S. Census projections for 2045 predict a shift in the demographic composition of the population from a White majority to a racially mixed majority. This suggests that we should prepare for cultural shifts and ensure our assessments fully embrace socioculturally responsive assessment practices. Without these practices, assessments limit the ability of adults from varied demographic backgrounds to demonstrate their capabilities adequately. Socioculturally responsive assessments are pivotal for representing the growing diversity in the learner population and for uncovering undetected workforce potential.

In ASAP, we are conducting focus groups, interviews, and listening sessions with learners, educators, and employers to understand their needs. We are also co-designing items in collaboration with key stakeholders and building consensus across adult education, workforce, and policy experts. We are developing use cases to understand hypothetical product users and conducting case studies to establish linkages between instruction and assessment as well as across classroom and workplace settings.

How has your background informed your interest in and contributions to ASAP?

As a teenager growing up in Spain, I saw first-hand the possible negative impact assessments could have when they don’t attend to learner goals and circumstances. When I was 15, my English teacher, based on narrow assessments, told my parents I was incapable of learning English, doubted my academic potential, and suggested I forego higher education for immediate employment. Defying this with the support of other teachers and my family, I pursued my passion. I became proficient in English at the age of 25 when I needed it to be a researcher, and I completed my PhD in psychology (psychometrics) at the age of 28.

Many adult students may have heard similar messages from prior teachers based on assessment results. And even now, many of the assessments the adult education field currently uses for these learners are designed by and for a population that no longer represents most learners. These adult learners may be getting advice or feedback that does not actually reflect their abilities or doesn’t provide useful guidance. Unfortunately, not all students are as lucky as I was. They may not have the support of others to counterbalance narrow assessments, and that shouldn’t be the expectation.

What are your hopes for the future of assessments for this adult population and the programs and employers that support them?

I hope we switch from measuring what we know generally how to measure (such as math and reading knowledge on a multiple-choice test) to measuring what matters to test takers and those using assessment results so that they can all accomplish goals in ways that honor individuals’ circumstances. Knowledge and skills—like the real world—are much more than right and wrong responses on a multiple-choice item. I also hope that as we embrace the latest developments in technology, such as AI, we can use them to deliver more flexible and personalized assessments.

In addition, I hope we stop assuming every learner has the same opportunities to learn or the same goals for their learning and that we start using assessments to empower learners rather than just as a measure of learning. In ASAP, for example, the adult learner will decide the type of test they want to take when to take it, the context within which the assessment will be framed, and when, where, and to whom the assessment result will be delivered.


This blog was produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), program officer for adult education at NCER.

 

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