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Women's History Month: The Benefits of Inclusive Assessments

By: Drs. Cristina Anguiano-Carrasco, senior research scientist; Nancy Lewin, senior director, ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning; and Jill McVey, research scientist

The 2024 Women’s History Month theme is “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” Recent research authored by women representing ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning and ACT Research explore how developing test content aligned with diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility practices can influence students’ testing experience.

“Culturally relevant assessment seeks to increase equity for success with test items that elevate different cultures and spread cultural knowledge,” wrote Drs. Anguiano-Carrasco, Lewin, and McVey. “[Students] reported that seeing themselves represented in test items made them feel included, motivated, empowered, and supported.” As we celebrate women who advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion, we asked this team to discuss their work on culturally relevant test questions and the representation of diverse perspectives in assessments to advance student success.

The evidence shows that culturally relevant test questions play a critical role in creating inclusive, supportive, and empowering assessment environments that enable all students – from different cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds – to thrive academically and personally. But how do students feel about this sort of test content? And does it provide the same valid, objective data as more traditional test items?

In our recent research on developing culturally relevant questions and items for math and science assessments, students told us they want test content that is more diverse but measures the same skills as legacy items. This content features culturally authentic materials free of stereotypes, raising awareness and promoting cross-cultural learning. It ensures test fairness by minimizing how cultural context affects difficulty.

When students saw their cultures represented in test questions, many reported a positive experience. One Black 11th grader told us, “I think it does matter … it could interest more people in the test. So, they’ll actually look forward to answering it. Because sometimes they come in these tests and they’re dreading it.”

As leaders who have advocated for diversity, equity, and inclusion to drive systemic change, we know student success is central to goal setting and decision making. The quickest ways to lose a student’s interest are alienation, irrelevance, and not allowing them to see themselves in their learning context. This disengagement can harm academic performance and dissuade persistence in education and career paths.

That’s why, along with our colleague Dr. Jeff Steedle, we decided to explore this topic. Our research promotes evidence-based understanding to help identify inequities, disparities, and barriers that can affect how students perform on assessments – and we found that test content can indeed be psychometrically strong while simultaneously engaging to students. When we remove barriers, we empower students to be engaged and motivated and provide opportunities to help them succeed.

When researchers include the student voice, we can amplify the perspectives of people from marginalized communities. Culturally relevant test items not only help these students perform better, they also help to spread cultural knowledge among peers.

The students in our research felt that ACT was supporting them and their cultures, as expressed by a Latina 11th grader: “For that question to have made it onto the test, obviously, there’s someone up there pushing for my culture and my people.”

By acknowledging and validating students’ identities and backgrounds and countering negative stereotypes, we can foster a sense of value and confidence in their potential. This approach contributes to more diverse and inclusive assessments, creating a fairer education system with broader implications for student learning and well-being.