New research into multilingual assessment for more inclusive education

Primary school pupils in the Netherlands are almost always tested with Dutch-language tests and by Dutch-speaking teachers, regardless of the subject. This sounds logical, but it results in an unfair assessment culture for many multilingual students, for example for newcomers, according to Marian van Popta and Jantien Smit of HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht (HU). In mathematic tests, these children are not only assessed on their mathematical skills, but also on their Dutch language proficiency: the language they are still learning. In a recently started research project, researchers, together with practitioners, investigate possibilities for more valid and fairer testing and assessment methods that do justice to all pupils’ mathematical potential.
Two primary schoolers crafting together

Five reception schools (i.e. schools for newly arrived pupils) and one mainstream primary school cooperate in the project. Together with educational professionals within these partner schools, the researchers involved look for adjustments in existing assessment practices in mathematics classrooms. In doing so, they want to make better use of home languages and promote formative assessment practices: assessment that is intended to steer pupils’ learning processes rather than to come to decisions about pupils’ mastery of particular content or skills. Marian van Popta, project leader and senior researcher in the research group for Multilingualism and Education, explains: "In professional development meetings we discuss what is happening in the schools' assessment practices and then look at what steps we can take to make assessment more inclusive and fairer. For example, we came across an assignment in a mathematics text book that uses an image of a container of washing powder with the word clock on it (this is a washing powder brand in the Netherlands). So, when you are still learning the Dutch language, this causes a lot of confusion. Language is very important in mathematics education, because it is about developing numeracy skills in meaningful contexts that are recognisable from everyday life."

Valorising home languages as a scaffold for learning

Jantien Smit, professor of applied sciences in Multilingualism and Education, explains: "The mathematical potential of newcomers is not adequately assessed by Dutch-language tests alone. After all, newcomers’ Dutch language skills are still developing, especially general academic and subject-specific language. As a result, students' mathematical knowledge and skills are often underestimated. As a teacher, you often miss important information if you keep the native languages out of the classroom. In Dutch, for example, we know the fraction two thirds, but in Turkish this fraction is expressed as 'three out of it two'. A child can experience a hurdle here, even if it does have the knowledge available. Evaluation moments are decisive for how children proceed in education and ultimately their careers. We are therefore looking for ways to use home languages in testing and assessment, and at the same time to take into account Dutch language proficiency at evaluation moments. Developing proficiency in Dutch mathematical language takes time, a lot of time."

Different tests or minor adjustments?

There are a lot of adjustments that can be made to existing ways of assessing, according to the researchers. Jantien: "Pupils themselves can play a role in the assessment process, for example, by creating a portfolio using their home language to show their knowledge and potential." Marian adds: "Another idea is using a dictionary, Google Translate or a translation computer. Or involve language buddies: children who share the same home language and can function as brokers. Language buddies could also play a role in more formative moments, such as diagnostic conversations about mathematics between the teacher and the pupil. Another option is for the teacher and the class to negotiate about the final assignment with which the pupils will be able to demonstrate the achievement of the learning objectives. They can then also decide which languages they will use to that end. This research project aims to contribute to an enrichment of Dutch assessment culture."

Jantien: "When it comes to fairer testing, a broader vision is needed. We have to move from narrow assessment to broad assessment and from monolingual education to multilingual education. That poses high demands on the entire educational system and on all professionals who work there. This project in the field of primary mathematics education is a first step."

About the research project

In addition to changes in the assessment practices of the six schools involved, rich descriptions will be provided to inspire other schools, other subject areas and (language) policy makers. The project Multilingual Assessment of the Mathematical Proficiency of Newly Arrived Children – Multi-Assessment offers many opportunities to expand in the future. Within the HU, there is close cooperation with the (online) Master Educational Needs, the research group for Mathematical and Analytical Competence of Professionals and Special Lecturer Assessment in Vocational Education Liesbeth Baartman. Outside the HU, we work together with social partners such as SLO, Lowan, Bureau ICE and Het ABC, as well as with various researchers in the Netherlands and abroad.

Share this article