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REL Pacific

Culturally Informed Assessments: Goals and Challenges

December 13, 2021

This blog is based on a REL Pacific webinar titled “Culturally Responsive Assessment: Goals, Challenges, and Implications” hosted on October 14, 2021 and presented by Carla Evans and Erika Landl from the Center for Assessment, and Kauʻi Sang from the Office of Hawaiian Education. You can view a recording of the webinar here.

In our first blog in this series on balanced systems of assessment, we explained the importance of having a balanced system of assessment, discussed what that may look like in practice, and considered how to begin selecting assessments that align to the needs of your school or district. In our second blog, we discussed how a holistic assessment system can support more equitable learning environments, considered how social and emotional learning assessment can be integrated into school systems to improve equity and outcomes for students, and examined how assessment systems can help improve students' academic, social, and emotional learning outcomes. This third and final blog in the series will examine how to design a balanced assessment system to promote equity, define different types of culturally informed assessments, and discuss how to work with vendors to select culturally informed assessments that meet the needs of your students.

Diverse students working on environmental project together

Credit: Introduction to Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

Designing for Equity in a Balanced Assessment System

Equity is the belief that student achievement increases when all students receive opportunities that allow them to draw on their social and cultural literacies in order to be academically successful. 1 A culturally informed approach to assessment is one way to foster equitable classrooms, and can include designing and selecting assessments that promote student equity as part of a balanced system of assessments.

When developing a balanced assessment system that focuses on equity, it's important to define what equity might mean in your context, articulate expectations for students, and collaborate with potential assessment vendors. To develop a working definition of equity, consider which stakeholders need to be at the table while the definition is being developed.

Next, define expectations by articulating them for students in a way that allows for different ways of knowing and doing and that aligns to content standards. Then, make equity an overarching emphasis within the design of the assessment system by providing opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding in flexible ways that highlight their cultural experiences. Teachers might give each student a choice in how to demonstrate their knowledge, such as either writing a paper, creating a graphic organizer, or making a video. Alternatively, a culturally informed assessment might give students the option to choose their own subject, for example asking students to evaluate the historic contexts of artwork specific to each of their individual cultures and to write an analysis as an interdisciplinary assessment on visual arts and the social studies. For students from collectivist cultures, teachers might consider talking through their knowledge as a group rather than focusing on individual reproduction of knowledge.

Culturally Informed Assessments & Balanced Assessment Systemst

Although the term “culturally informed assessment” is used broadly to refer to assessments that incorporate students' cultures, four distinct terms are commonly used when discussing culturally informed assessments:
  • Culturally Sensitive assessments recognize that cultural differences and similarities between students exist without assigning them a value, reflecting a broad range of cultural identities and practices.
  • Culturally Relevant assessments take students' everyday lived cultural experiences and link them to intended learning, representing the cultural values and differences of the test-taking population.
  • Culturally Responsive assessments provide students flexibility during assessments so that students have opportunities to bring their own cultural references and fluencies into demonstrations of achievement.
  • Culturally Sustaining assessments include students as part of the design process, becoming a demonstration of students' heritage and community cultural practices.

Any of the four types of culturally informed assessments defined above can add adaptability and allow students to demonstrate their cultural fluencies within a balanced system of assessment. Culturally informed assessments account for differences in students' cultural identities by being flexible and adaptive enough to allow students the opportunity to bring their own cultural references and fluencies into demonstrations of achievement. Large-scale, standardized assessments at the district or state level that require a high level of comparability between students of different backgrounds are generally not adaptive enough to be culturally responsive or sustaining. Likewise, assessments flexible enough to take into consideration students' cultural competencies generally lack the comparability required for state or district level assessments. Both types of assessments—those with high levels of flexibility and those with high levels of comparability—serve important roles in a balanced assessment system.

Collaborating with Assessment Vendors

When collaborating with potential assessment vendors, clarify your definition of equity and your associated expectations, and include equity in discussions when selecting assessments. Work with vendors to understand how their assessments are designed to be culturally sensitive and which elements of each assessment are flexible enough to be modified to meet your students' specific needs and cultural fluencies without compromising the integrity of the assessment or diminishing its value.

When designing culturally informed assessments, consider the following:

  • In what ways does the assessment reference culture?
  • Does the assessment allow all students to draw from their cultural fluencies?
  • How does the assessment support students in bridging their social/cultural identities with their academic identities?

Additional Resources



1 Stembridge, A. (2020). Culturally responsive education in the classroom: An equity framework for pedagogy. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.