More mirrors, please
When a story on the radio about a new education startup designed for Black students featured the opening synthesizer sounds from Beyonce’s “Formation," I was immediately hooked.1 So much so that I immediately had to google the full version of the video, Lit in Formation, that includes lyrics about the “lack of diverse texts” in education and how “I like my books to look like me, mirrors and windows,”2 which references the work of Rudine Sims Bishop.3
When I reflect on what my excitement was telling me, I think about the first time in my educational experience that I had a teacher who “looked like me”—she identifies as being from South Asia and I identify as Southeast Asian. It was not until I was an undergraduate in college. Similarly, I think about the first time I learned about non-European mathematicians, which was in a History of Mathematics course while pursuing my bachelor’s degree in mathematics.
And so, those lyrics were another signal pointing to a growing appetite for education materials that reflected a wider range of people, experiences, and identities, including communities of people who look like me.
What's the big deal about culturally responsive education?
The question of how to disrupt inequities in U.S. public education, often referred to as “achievement gaps” and “opportunity gaps,” is a common topic of discussion among educators. The disparities in the educational experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous students have been documented going back to the 1970s.4,5
When I use the term Brown, I am referring to people who identify as Latinx, Asian, and/or Pacific Islander. Students who identify as Asian and Pacific Islander are often erased from educational inequity narratives because of a myth that there is an Asian Advantage, especially in mathematics.6 That myth is harmful. It masks the tremendous diversity among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who may have cultural ties to at least one of 62 Asian or Pacific Island nations, and ignores the numerous disparities experienced by members of the community.7,8
But why do these disparities persist?
In mathematics, one reason is that there is a philosophy that teaching and learning mathematics is culturally neutral. Some mathematics educators may even argue that the beauty of mathematics is in its objective, abstract, and apolitical nature. However, this perspective only serves to maintain the educational inequities experienced by Indigenous, Brown, and Black students in our country.
Fortunately, paradigms have shifted in recent decades. There is greater awareness and acceptance that mathematics education is a cultural process, and students bring with them knowledge and understanding filtered through their individual cultural lens. Based on the pedagogical framework by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, “culturally relevant teachers utilize students’ culture as a vehicle for learning.9 Furthermore, culturally relevant teaching “empowers students—intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically—by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”10 As a side note, I use the term culturally responsive, which shares similar goals with culturally relevant, but places a larger emphasis on strategies and practices.11
While a framework for approaching education with a culturally responsive lens is not new, there is an untapped component of mathematics education that deserves greater focus and attention—that is, a focus on designing mathematics curriculum and assessments to be more inclusive, representative, and responsive to an increasingly diverse U.S. public school student population.12
Benefits for students
One of the most exciting aspects of applying a culturally responsive lens in mathematics is that it rehumanizes mathematics by “conjuring up feelings of joy.”13 It could be joy that is felt when making a connection to a familiar celebration or type of food that is referenced in a mathematics problem. Or the subtle joy of seeing a student’s name in a mathematics task that is similar to names commonly used in your community. Or even a sense of belonging that is invoked when seeing an image of a student that reflects your own identity.
However large or small that joy may be, implementing principles of culturally responsive education allows students the opportunity to make personal connections to mathematics content, which is linked to the following positive student outcomes:
improved student interest and enjoyment in math,
persistence in problem-solving,
confidence in mathematics,
and increased mathematics performance on formal assessments.14
Studies have also shown that culturally responsive approaches in mathematics encourage students from all backgrounds to use their higher-level thinking skills, such as analysis, reasoning, and evaluation (e.g., CCSS math practices).15
Returning to the analogy of mirrors and windows in education, when we create curriculum and assessments that reflect the cultural identities of students of color, these “mirrors” serve to validate and celebrate students’ racial backgrounds and experiences. At the same time, curriculum and assessments can also serve as “windows” for students of different cultural backgrounds, providing opportunities for each student to understand his, her, or their connection to all other humans.3
In short, designing culturally responsive mathematics assessments benefits all students.
CenterPoint's approach for applying culturally responsive practices in assessment
Knowing this, CenterPoint is committed to developing culturally responsive mathematics assessments that include a diverse representation of students’ cultural backgrounds, experiences, and communities, which may differ from our own lived experiences and identities. By shifting away from a culturally neutral mathematics paradigm and building upon the cultural capital of students, we promote inclusion and add meaning to mathematics for students.
What about social justice?
A prominent feature of culturally responsive education is that the problems and tasks connect to real-world problems for which students are asked to consider solutions, thereby promoting the development of students’ critical consciousness. These issues may involve injustices that exist in students’ communities or nationwide. Specifically, culturally responsive mathematics tasks are real-world problems that take into account a broader world than the typically Eurocentric one emphasized in the past. They may ask students to “make sense of the world through mathematics” and “critique society—that is, make empowered decisions about themselves, communities, and world.”18
Despite the importance of empowering students to challenge injustice, including social justice topics (e.g., voting rights, climate justice, income gaps, food insecurity, racial injustice) in assessment can be problematic from a bias perspective and therefore raise fairness concerns. So, unless it is essential for valid measurement, we avoid references to topics that may cause students to have strong, emotional reactions that distract or prevent them from completing a problem or task. Instead, these issues are more appropriate as topics of discussion in mathematics classrooms.
When developing culturally responsive assessments in mathematics, we strive to write items with engaging contexts that center the diverse cultures of students of color, which have been historically underrepresented in U.S. education.
Specifically, we consider the following criteria when developing a culturally responsive assessment item (i.e., test question or task) in mathematics:
The cultural content of the item is interesting and promotes connections.
The cultural content of the item is accurate.
The cultural content shows appreciation of the culture and avoids the use of stereotypes.
Students can answer the question(s) with the information provided.
The item has been written in simple, plain language.
Let’s consider two sample items, one that meets and one that does not meet CenterPoint’s criteria for culturally responsive math assessment items. Both items are designed to measure the Common Core State Standard 3.OA.A.3 (i.e., use multiplication and division within 100 to solve word problems in situations involving equal groups, arrays, and measurement quantities).
Figure 1. Two items aligned to content standard 3.OA.A.3
Item A is an example of an item that meets CenterPoint’s criteria for culturally responsive math items.
The cultural content of the item is interesting and promotes connections. Featuring lemongrass, which is typically used as an herb in South Asian and Southeast Asian cooking and medicine, centers the content of the item around a diverse set of identities, thereby decentering White, European cultures. Students familiar with South Asian and Southeast Asian cooking or medicinal practices are likely to make a positive connection to the item based on personal experiences tasting recipes or using remedies with lemongrass. Students who are not familiar with the herb may also be intrigued by the unique ingredient.
The cultural content shows appreciation of the culture and avoids the use of stereotypes. Lemongrass is cultivated throughout Asia and other tropical regions. It is a common ingredient in many Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian recipes and can also be used in a variety of healing therapies. The item avoids any negative portrayals of the character, Raj.
Students can answer the question(s) with the information provided. A sufficient amount of context is provided, in particular with the inclusion of art, for students unfamiliar with lemongrass. Students who are not familiar with lemongrass will not be disadvantaged by the reference to a new kind of plant.
The item has been written in simple, plain language. Though lemongrass is often referred to as having stalks, the word “stems” was chosen to ensure the vocabulary is appropriate for 3rd grade students. Other key phrases in the item, such as “tie up” and “bunch,” are also grade-level appropriate.21 [Note: Although it is a common practice in textbooks and print media to italicize foreign words, we intentionally do not follow this convention in our mathematics assessments. We feel this practice further prioritizes mainstream U.S. culture and reinforces the “otherness” of non-English languages and the communities who speak them.]
In contrast, Item B was not designed to meet our culturally responsive item criteria. The cultural context, pencils being placed into bags or other containers, is frequently used in mathematics curricula but not intentionally culturally specific. Thus, Item B fails to amplify a typically underrepresented culture, student experience, or cultural identity.
Item B is easily accessible to all, valid, and appropriate for use with students. It is the kind of item students encounter all the time. It just wasn't designed to be culturally responsive.
Do we think that one question about lemongrass on a mathematics test is going to dramatically change students’ lives and develop their critical consciousness? Of course not. But having grown up in a predominantly White community, I would have appreciated having a wider variety of cultural backgrounds, experiences, and communities represented in the curriculum. So if we can plant some seeds that affirm the cultures and identities of Brown, Indigenous, and Black students, then we can begin to honor each other’s humanity using mathematics.
Not only that but creating assessments that are inclusive is part of who we are.
We would love to hear about your experience with culturally responsive assessments and/or curricula!
Do you implement culturally responsive strategies in your teaching or assessment practices?
Do CenterPoint’s criteria for designing culturally responsive assessment items in mathematics resonate with you? What do you appreciate the most or what might you do differently?
If you’re up for sharing, when was the first time you recognized yourself reflected in the curriculum? How did that make you feel?
CenterPoint would like to thank Nirupa Mathew and the mathematics editorial team at Curriculum Associates for their partnership and guidance in navigating culturally responsive assessment design in mathematics.
Katrina Santner serves as a Senior Instructional Designer in Mathematics at CenterPoint Education Solutions. CenterPoint is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting schools and districts in implementing coherent instructional models consisting of high-quality curriculum, tightly aligned assessments, and professional learning.
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