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Ben Rockliffe, AlphaPlus’s Deputy Director of Assessment explains how to ensure assessment content is inclusive of culture, equality and diversity.

As an international education services company specialising in assessment, AlphaPlus spends a lot of time creating assessments. Clearly, we focus a lot on the subject and level of the content being assessed, but there are a range of other important factors we need to consider during the development process. This article explains three key considerations – culture, equality and diversity – that ensure assessments are appropriate for diverse cohorts of learners.

What is culture?

Culture is the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people. Assessments may be used by different cultures and will, therefore, need to account for different customs and beliefs across these different groupings.

What is equality?

Equality means making sure that everyone is treated fairly and with dignity and respect. In the context of assessment, this means removing barriers, so that everyone has opportunities to demonstrate the required standard.

What is diversity?

Diversity is about recognising different values, abilities, and perspectives, and celebrating people’s differences. This means developing assessments that allow for diverse backgrounds, thinking, skills and experiences.

Why are culture, equality and diversity important for content?

Assessment content needs to be as equally accessible as possible to all learners within its target cohort in order to be valid. If learners’ cultural setting or personal circumstances affect, either negatively or positively, their ability to understand the context of a question or source material within an assessment, then the level playing field ceases to exist.

Many assessments also occupy important positions in educational or professional landscapes, acting as a gateway to the next stage or learner or higher-level positions. Assessments must, therefore, avoid stereotyping within content, as inclusion could lead to this being transferred into the training and teaching associated with preparing for them.

As assessment developers, we need to get this right for a number of reasons. Assessments that discriminate are bad assessments, because the results do not give a true reflection of how a learner has performed, and failure to get this right can, in some more extreme cases, contravene equalities legislation and/or regulatory requirements. Most importantly, creating fair assessments that allow all learners the chance to do their best is the right thing to do.

How does this work in practice?

We ask all our assessment authors and quality reviewers to consider these issues when they are writing and reviewing assessment content. Here are some examples of the types of things that we look out for.

Is the question content equally relevant to the situation of all of the learner cohort?

This is particularly relevant to international assessments. For example, you may have an author in the UK writing questions for an international assessment that will be taken by some learners who are based in hot, dry, dessert countries. If they create a question scenario with a context that is based on wet cold weather, this context will be less familiar to these learners and be easier to access/interpret for learners from countries where these countries are common, potentially providing them with an unfair advantage.

Similarly, culturally assumed points of reference can cause issues in assessments that are taken across a range of jurisdictions. A numeracy question with a scenario written for a UK context that assumes that lunchtime is at 12:00pm may cause confusion for learners and therefore put learners at a disadvantages, where this is not the norm. Another very common example is where a question talks about a culturally celebrated event or day, for instance, some learners may not celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving or Eid, and therefore be less prepared to deal with a question situated in such a context.

Is the question content appropriate for learners in different financial circumstances?

Many assessments will be undertaken by learners from a cross-section of socio-economic backgrounds. Care needs to be given to ensure that contexts are equally open to all of these groups. Scenarios that assume a high level of income, can be less familiar/put learners from a lower-income background at a disadvantage. Examples might include scenarios that include budgets for very expensive items, or involving expensive holidays in exotic locations.

Does the question content include inappropriate stereotyping?

While it may be appropriate to have some question scenarios with examples that conform to a stereotype, e.g. engineers that are men and nurses that are women, the content should try to balance this out with reverse stereotypes, e.g. girls playing rugby or examples of non-typical families, as appropriate to the subject and content where the assessment is taking place.

It is worth noting that sometimes reverse stereotyping can be overdone and then this becomes an issue in its own right. For instance, if all families represented are “non-typical” then this can appear unusual. The key to success is to create a “balance” across typical and non-typical examples.

Are there opportunities for positive role models or casting?

When developing source materials or context for assessments then it may be possible sometimes to put underrepresented groups in key positive roles. For example, you may be able to cast someone with a disability as a leader or a hero within a story. This can help make the assessment relatable to these groups and also provide positive reinforcement for other learners undertaking the assessment.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes, it is important to consider all of the factors above when taking an assessment. However, the core purpose of the assessment overrides these. This means that if the learner is unable to demonstrate a particular skill that is required of that assessment, and if the skill is an essential requirement to demonstrating competence in that area, then the assessment still needs to incorporate that skill. For example, a candidate for an HGV driving assessment who grew up in a hot climate may have less awareness of what to do if there is ice on the road. However, they still will still need to know this in order to pass their assessment if undertaken in a cold country.

What are the benefits of getting this right?

The primary benefit of creating assessment content that reflects its target cohort ensures that all learners have an equal chance of succeeding. However, there are other advantages:

  1. Reputation: blatant errors of this nature in content can cause significant reputational damage for the assessment provider.
  2. Legal compliance: some adaptations may be required to support protected characteristics in law.
  3. Innovation: thinking about assessments through this lens can encourage you to try new approaches.
  4. Business: ensuring assessments cater for all learners means they will be appropriate to the widest market possible.

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