Author: Maya Kaul

Keeping Students at the Center with Culturally Relevant Performance Assessments

July 29, 2019 by

This post originally appeared Next Generation Learning Challenges on June 4, 2019.

Student Presenting Performance AssessmentPerformance assessments provide a critical space for students to reflect on and share their personal stories and their identities as learners.

“All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is: To which culture is it currently oriented?”
—Gloria Ladson-Billings

At the heart of the shift toward more student-centered models of learning and assessment is an understanding that learning is socially embedded and that the broader communities that students exist within matter to their learning. Emerging findings from brain science reveal that students’ cultural contexts, in particular, are fundamental to their learning. These findings are not new. They are built upon a rich history of research highlighting how central culturally responsive pedagogy is to providing all students with a high-quality education.

One powerful means of bringing students’ culture into the classroom is through culturally relevant performance assessments. Performance assessments center students’ identity and experiences by asking them to show what they know and can do through multidisciplinary projects, presentations of their learning in front of a panel, and reflections on their educational trajectory. At their core, such assessments provide a critical space for students to reflect on and share their personal stories and their identities as learners.

Lessons From Hawai’i: Defining “Cultural Relevance”

Representatives from the Hawai’i education department and the Hawaiian-focused Charter School (HFCS) network recently shared the ways their state policy and the work of the HFCS school network work together to support culturally relevant assessments that center Native Hawaiian culture in schools across Hawai’i. During a fall 2018 convening in which leaders from HFCS came together with practitioners from districts across California to share lessons from their respective performance-assessment systems, one of the biggest questions that emerged was: What would it look like to employ culturally relevant performance assessments in diverse contexts in which there are many cultures with which students identify?

Charlene Hoe—founder of the Hakipu’u Learning Center in Hawai’i—responded that “culture” is defined by a student’s local context or history: It may include students’ personal racial or ethnic background but it is also defined by their neighborhood, their school, and their home. Making an assessment “culturally relevant” in diverse contexts means allowing students to draw connections between their learning and their direct, daily experiences with the world, and treating those experiences as an asset in the classroom.

Cultural Relevance in Diverse School Systems: Lessons From California

Given this understanding of cultural relevance, it is possible to understand how to design and implement culturally relevant performance assessments to serve diverse student populations. One such context is the California Performance Assessments Collaborative (CPAC), a Learning Policy Institute initiative. CPAC represents policymakers, researchers, and a professional learning community of districts, networks, and schools across the state of California working to study and advance the use of performance assessments. CPAC was founded to help build systems of assessment that more equitably serve all students within diverse student populations; this concern for equity has been a central organizing tenet of CPAC since its inception.

The work of CPAC is being led by school districts such as Los Angeles UnifiedOakland Unified, and Pasadena Unified, which are using performance assessments to operationalize their respective district profiles of college-, career-, and community-ready graduates. These district visions call for students to move beyond the mastery of academic-content knowledge to reflect on their learning, cultivate social-emotional skills, and become civically engaged within their communities.

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