Transcript: Alfredo Artiles, PhD

Testing Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners

Alfredo Artiles discusses issues that might come up when teachers use standardized tests with English learners. He also shares his thoughts about reading instruction for these students (time: 7:17).

Narrator: This podcast is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Alfredo Artiles is a professor at Arizona State University specializing in how constructions of difference (e.g., race, class, language background) influence schools’ responses to the needs of diverse students. In particular, his research examines special education placement practices. Some of his work tracks disability placement patterns as a way to inform further research and policy.

Narrator: Professor Artiles, can you talk a bit about some of the issues related to ecological validity that instructors should be aware of when they test English learners?

Alfredo Artiles: Ecological validity is defined as “the extent to which behavior sampled in one setting can be taken as characteristic of an individual’s cognitive processing in a range of all the settings.” We assume, for example, in intelligence testing that all of those items and questions will be representative of how people process information and engage in thinking practices in a range of other settings. Well, that’s not always the case, depending on who is been involved in the use of the test. So, in order to be ecologically valid, you have to meet conditions. One is target situations that are going to be included in the test or the measure that are authentic to the person’s routine experiences. And that’s when you run into trouble, that often times a lot of these kids—especially those kids from low-income, racial and linguistically different backgrounds—are being asked to respond to situations or items or questions that are not aligned or authentic to their person’s routine experiences. The second condition to be ecologically valid will be to work in settings that accurately resemble the individual’s socio-cultural everyday milieu. To what extent is this person and the communities from which the person comes familiar with the social situation of the test? To what extent are they familiar with sitting in contexts that are completely detached from meaningful practices to answer questions the way you are asking them to answer the questions during the testing? When you are actually sitting in front of a child and you are engaged in a number of social practices with this individual, that may or may not be culturally loaded. For example, the fact that you are sitting in front of a child and you’re asking questions that are supposedly known-answer questions might be perceived by that person as illogical or crazy or tricky. So it might be that the person that is taking the test, the child, is coming from a community in which their linguistic practices do not include the use of known-answer questions; you never ask questions to which you know the answer already. If you do that, there must be something wrong, there must be something tricky, you don’t want to be trapped into some weird situation, and therefore you might decide not to answer those questions.

Narrator: And what about culturally relevant text? Is using this kind of text the most effective way to increase student reading skills?

Alfredo Artiles: In order to make reading instruction more relevant, you don’t have to rely solely on text that makes sense to the kids. I mean, that’s one way to do that. There are a number of ways in which that you can make curriculum adaptations. One of them is include stories about Native American students if you have Native American students in the classroom, and so forth.

I think it helps because it makes the motivational force of the activity enhance. It is enhanced by using themes and content that are useful and familiar to the students. There is a motivational factor engaged in reading that we tend to ignore for the most part, and it might make it easier for students to talk and try to engage with text that has some relevance and familiarity for them. So I think the need will be to understand the funds of knowledge, the information, and the practices to which the students have been exposed around literacy. Not only around decoding words but how kids use symbols and use different tools to make sense and interpret the world in their own communities so that you can begin to think about those resources to enhance the success you might have with the students, for example through storytelling, other forms of narrative expression, singing, and other forms providing the information. I think it would be misleading to say that just by doing culturally sensitive text, that’s going to take care of it. I don’t think it’s the whole picture. There are studies, for example, that were done with native Hawaiian kids back in the 70s where they increased the relevance of the text. In addition to the text, they changed how students participated in the classroom. And they showed that by importing those participation structures into the classroom discourse—specifically, instead of having the traditional “stop and take a turn, this person first, and then we’ll move to the next one, and we’ll have a more organized, sequential type of interaction in the classroom”—let’s just use the linguistic practices of these native Hawaiian kids at home that is more, at first glance, disorganized in the sense that they are used to have overlapping speech going on—people talking on top of each other—and more informal ways of communicating and people building on each others’ contributions and a number of other features of discourse. And as they started to apply some of those participation structures into reading instruction, the reading achievement of these kids increased significantly over time. So it was not only the result of using relevant text but it was also the result of the social sphere of reading instruction.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to this episode of the IRIS Center podcast. For more information about the IRIS Center and its resources, visit us at

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