Race, culture, and diversity are important but often overused terms that leaders use to highlight deficiencies in our contemporary system. With the recent attention to policing and public safety in our communities and the rallying cry of “Black lives matter”, it is imperative for our state leaders to discuss this topic from a root-cause analysis perspective. While pundits discuss policy reforms across the nation that have deep impact in our public safety and criminal justice system, many in the education community highlight and stress the broader and ubiquitous policy reforms in early childhood education that can significantly influence and address equity and diversity issues.
Let’s face it: If our children are to grow to become successful contributing members of our society, then we must teach and model appropriate behavior and interaction beginning at a young age. It is in the classroom that students are given tools and valuable experiences on relating to each other and learning to become allies and friends to others who might not phenotypically or physically reflect their own monolithic environmental make up. Simply put, if we want to make great strides in cultural and racial equity and diversity, rooting out prejudice and racism, we must have a laser-focused attention and commitment to change with our children at our schools.
As a Nevada State Board of Education member, I have seen meaningful and successful changes in our classroom that work to reduce bias and prejudice amongst our children, empower the social and emotional growth of our children, and turn bullies into allies. Many education policy makers have done a great job developing, promoting, and instituting successful programs such as these across the nation. That said, there continues to be aspects of our public education system that still demand our attention for change from a cultural and diverse perspective.
If we were truly committed to rooting out racism and prejudice we need to look directly at our curriculum and assessment, which has an enormous impact in the formation of identity in all of our children. A perfect example of this is the widespread use of normative reference assessments, with its results only able to compare students to one another and not against a fixed set of criteria. This archaic measurement tool has a base assumption that all students are the same, come from the same narrative, speak the same language, and reflect the same midwestern, white, Christian middle income demographic.
This base assumption does not remotely reflect the diverse student population in Nevada. However, much of the progressive efforts made in assessment design focuses on the best practices of criterion referenced assessment, that which gauge a student’s mastery of content based upon a fixed set of standards. A perfect example of this is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) assessment, which gauges this mastery of standards and gives us a clear picture of what students have learned. Yet, we still have lingering practices in Nevada administering normative referenced assessments and only comparing students to one another. Not only are we not assessing our students’ mastery of the content, but we are excluding a large population of students from even having the chance to be successful. For a student whose native language is other than English and whose personal narrative reflects something vastly different from the midwestern, white, Christian middle income demographic, their chances to succeed in a normatively judged scenario is greatly reduced.
It is time for the use of normative-referenced academic assessments to come to an end in Nevada. We need to be assured that our students are learning the content and achieving mastery in their own right. We need to see racial and cultural inclusion reflected in the assessment itself, so students from all backgrounds feel efficacious about their participation and meaningfulness. We need to empower our English-language learners by providing assessments in their native-languages until they are able to be assessed in English. Moreover, we should never judge a young child who is still learning English and compare those results against a student who was raised from infancy with English in the home. Race, culture and diversity are pillars of our society. It is time that we commit to starting from an early age in our classrooms to making it a priority.
Felicia Ortiz is a longtime Las Vegas resident and an elected member of the Nevada State Board of Education. She also is a member of the Nevada State College President’s Advisory Board. Her Twitter ID: @fortiz505