By Sumeyra Gok
“Cultural bias involves a prejudice or highlighted distinction in viewpoint that suggests a preference of one culture over another” (Yingst, 2011). Examples of cultural bias would be believing that people belonging to certain races or ethnicities are more or less intelligent than others, associating one’s competence based on their accent or fluency in English (or another target language), and judging other people’s cultural practices based on our own values. This type of bias, whether it occurs intentionally or unintentionally, can emerge in various ways and may influence the way we teach, act towards certain students and colleagues, and handle any disputes that may arise from cultural differences present in our classrooms.
Determining cultural bias is especially important in ESL classrooms because English learners receive their knowledge of the mainstream culture in these classes first. Cultural bias may cause these students to feel othered. As Kyung Hee (2015) argues, “in schools in which Standard English is valued and students’ home languages are devalued, whether they be different dialects of English or other languages, a student’s adoption of the school’s valued language may feel like a rejection of one’s home community, which may be a difficult and painful decision (J. Baker, 2002).” This type of preference of standard English and/or the White Anglo-Saxon culture over others can easily influence the opinions of all students and how they regard people that are different from them. Therefore, cultural bias in any form can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Guerrettaz and Zahler’s (2017) elaborate that “which varieties of English are taught and valued, whether monolingualism is seen as an advantage or deficit (Liggett, 2014), and what cultural images and references are connected to the English language in textbooks” are some of the examples to cultural bias in ESL classrooms.
In addition to classroom practices and textbooks, cultural bias can also occur in testing. For example, Wilburne (2011) states that the most common form of cultural bias on tests is the problematic language and this includes “forms of measurement, money, proper nouns (persons, places, and things specific to a country, region, or historical era), and holidays unique to the United States.” Problematic language does not only affect English learners, there are many minority groups in the United States who might have different prior knowledge when it comes to certain concepts even if they speak English as a first language. The negative impact of cultural bias in testing might also be visible in the statistics on student achievement based on race or ethnicity. Myers (2013) asserts that “lower income and African American and Latino students across the United States consistently score below higher income, white, or Asian students in achievement tests and college admission tests (Rooks, 2012)” and as a result, “the question that faces test developers, educators, and lawmakers is whether achievement gaps in this country are a result of test biases or actual differences in achievement.” This distinction has significant implications for research, teacher education programs, curriculum development and classroom instruction.
However, there are also consequences at a more individual level. In addition to lowering students’ self esteem, cultural bias in testing can also result in low grades and fewer opportunities to get into college. Another negative consequence is that based on standardized tests or classroom assessment tools, ESL students might be placed in special education programs even when they may not belong there. Kyung Hee (2015) states that “unjustifiable reliance on IQ and other evaluation tools (Losen & Orfield, 2002) has been cited as one of the factors contributing to the over-representation of minority children in special education classes.” Placing ELs in Special Education programs solely based on their test results or language barriers might seem like an easy solution, but it might have negative consequences for the student’s future academic progress.
Even though cultural bias is sometimes institutionalized and is out of our control, there are still several things we can do to minimize it as much as possible. Some suggestions given by Ndura (2004) are; becoming aware of students’ backgrounds, examining instructional materials, preparing supplemental materials, listening to the students and actively engaging them in discussions related to culture and cultural differences. Nowadays, most topics on race, ethnicity and discrimination are avoided in order to stay clear of any conflicts. However, students, especially English learners, need to discuss these issues to create more awareness.
There are also strategies to minimize cultural bias in assessment. Some of the suggestions listed by Kyung Hee (2013) are; not timing or giving more time to ESL students on tests that are taken in English, alternative assessment methods, using creativity to assess learning, practicing language development that may help students on tests, maintaining linguistic and cultural congruence between home and school, educating students in their native language, using local knowledge and culture in the curriculum to improve the academic performance, providing students with dictionaries and scaffolding some test questions.
All in all, cultural bias can present itself in different ways and it is up to us, the teachers and teacher educators, to search within for implicit biases that we may not realize that we have. Hammond (2015) offers self reflection tools to help uncover implicit bias; explain the attributions you have about the student, write out or reflect on your feelings and thoughts when working with the student, take into account the potential for misinterpretations resulting from deficit thinking, prejudice, and over generalizations, consider alternative explanations by reviewing your documentation and reflections, check your assumptions by sharing your reflections with a colleague or meeting the parents to learn more about the expected and observed behaviors at home, and lastly, make a plan and continuously revisit this process to reassess your attributions and progress.
Guerrettaz, A. M., & Zahler, T. (2017). Black Lives Matter in TESOL: De-Silencing Race in a Second Language Academic Literacy Course. TESOL Quarterly: A Journal For Teachers Of English To Speakers Of Other Languages And Of Standard English As A Second Dialect, 51(1), 193-207.
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company.
Kyung Hee, K., & Zabelina, D. (2015). Cultural Bias In Assessment: Can Creativity Assessment Help?. International Journal Of Critical Pedagogy, 6(2), 129-148.
Myers, S. (2013). Test Bias. Research Starters: Education (Online Edition),
Ndura, E. (2004). ESL and Cultural Bias: An Analysis of Elementary Through High School Textbooks in the Western United States of America. Language, Culture and Curriculum,17(2), 143-153. doi:10.1080/07908310408666689
Wilburne, J. M., Marinak, B. A., & Strickland, M. J. (2011). Addressing Cultural Bias. Mathematics Teaching In The Middle School, 16(8), 460-465.
Yingst T.E. (2011) Cultural Bias. In: Goldstein S., Naglieri J.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. Springer, Boston, MA