Cultural and home language influences on children's responses to science assessments

Aurolyn Luykx, Okhee Lee, Margarette Mahotiere, Benjamin Lester, Juliet Hart, Rachael Deaktor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: A critical issue in academic assessment is the effect of children's language and culture on their measured performance. Research on this topic has rarely focused on science education, because science is commonly (though erroneously) assumed to be "culture free." Students' scientific understandings are influenced by the cultural values, experiences, and epistemologies of their home communities. Efforts to minimize cultural bias include designing tests to be "culturally neutral" and, conversely, tailoring assessments to spedfic cultural groups; both approaches are theoretically and practically problematic. Several studies have focused on testing accommodations for English language learners (ELLs), but accommodations raise validity and feasibility issues and are limited by "English- only"policies. This article stresses the linkages between language and culture, drawing on contemporary literacy theory and research on scientific communities as well as groups traditionally marginalized from science. Objective: To examine how children's prior linguistic and cultural knowledge mediates their engagement with school science, as reflected in their responses on science assessments. Participants: Over 1,500 students from six elementary schools serving diverse populations. Research Design: Project-developed assessments included items requiring students to explain scientific phenomena. Scoring revealed that students misinterpreted some items, and scorers had difficulty understanding some students' responses. Project personnel then undertook qualitative discourse analysis of responses on all tests. Findings: Analysis revealed phonological/orthographic and semantic interference from students' home languages; responses reflecting students ' cultural beliefs and practices; and "languacultural" features related to genre, authorial voice, pragmatic framing, and textual organization. Conclusions/Recommendations: Science tests inevitably contain tacit cultural and linguistic knowledge that is not equally accessible to all students. Using "real-life scenarios" in assessment items may confuse students whose lives do not reflect mainstream norms. Furthermore, English-medium assessments are unlikely to accurately measure ELLs ' science knowledge. Teachers can learn to recognize factors that impede ELLs from grasping or expressing science concepts clearly. They should also ensure that all students understand the discursive and textual conventions inherent in assessment instruments. Linguistic and cultural factors shape science knowledge not only of students but of teachers, scientists, and test developers. Uncovering the factors shaping students' academic performance requires fine-grained qualitative analysis and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)897-926
Number of pages30
JournalTeachers College Record
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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