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Early Childhood | March 2011

3 steps to better assessment for culturally and linguistically diverse children

Smiling teacher holding onto one little boy looking toward viewer while circled around a table with other children

Take steps to ensure culturally and linguistically diverse children are not overrepresented in special education

As the U.S. population grows more and more varied—the Census Bureau indicates that a language other than English is now spoken in 20% of homes—your program is probably welcoming more culturally and linguistically diverse children every year. As an early childhood professional, you're aware of how critical it is to accurately assess diverse children and formulate a comprehensive picture of their strengths and needs. You also know how challenging that can be: According to the authors of Assessing Young Children in Inclusive Settings, dual- and multi-language learners have consistently been overrepresented in special education services, often because of preventable errors in the assessment process.

Fortunately, there are key steps you can take to resolve this problem. By implementing multiple alternative assessment approaches, choosing the right assessment tools, and partnering closely with families, you can ensure more effective and accurate assessment of your culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Use multiple alternative assessment approaches

Because a single standardized, norm-referenced test may incompletely capture the finely detailed picture of what diverse children are capable of, children may be mistakenly identified as having a developmental delay or learning disability. To help you avoid this error and fully grasp the skills and needs of culturally and linguistically diverse children, you'll find it helpful to look beyond traditional assessment models and use today's promising alternative assessment approaches.

Alternative assessment approaches are a good way to supplement the results of traditional tests. They are especially effective with diverse children because they allow for use of culturally appropriate materials, help distinguish between a cultural (or linguistic) difference and a developmental delay, and encourage family involvement (see the "Partner with Families" section of this article).

There are many alternative assessment methods available today, each with its own set of benefits for you and the children and families you work with. This chart, adapted from Alternative Approaches to Assessing Young Children, Second Edition, gives you a quick introduction to three popular assessment methods and why they work well for culturally and linguistically diverse children.

Type of assessment

What it involves

Why it works with diverse children

Naturalistic assessment

Child behavior is observed during unstructured, child-initiated activities in natural environments

Familiar, culturally appropriate materials are already present; child is assessed in the context of his family and environment

Portfolio assessment

Diverse samples of a student's work are methodically collected over a period of time

Highly individualized; easy to adapt for cultural and linguistic diversity

Dynamic assessment

"Test-teach-retest" model, comparing a child's performance before and after intervention and measuring her capacity for learning and progressing

Focuses on learning potential rather than mastery, good for children with limited exposure to mainstream culture and language

No matter which approach (or approaches) you choose, a balanced consideration for cultural and linguistic diversity should be woven into every part of the assessment process. If you've chosen, for example, a naturalistic assessment approach that embeds assessment within a child's typical routines and everyday environment, incorporate these steps recommended in Alternative Approaches to Assessing Young Children:

Before assessment

  • Determine whether an interpreter will be needed.
  • Gather toys and materials that are culturally appropriate and familiar to the child.
  • Learn which family members and others interact with the child on a regular basis.

During assessment

  • Observe whether the parent is following the attentional lead of the child during play.
  • Assist parents in direct testing as needed.
  • Ask the parent to report on developmental skills that were not observed during the observational and direct testing period.

After assessment

  • Meet with family and other team members to discuss the information gathered during assessment.
  • Ask parents if the child played and behaved in a typical fashion.
  • If appropriate, solicit feedback from the interpreter about the cultural appropriateness of the social and communication styles used by the facilitator.

Learn more about the alternative approaches mentioned, as well as three others, in this excerpt from Alternative Approaches to Assessing Young Children.

Choose the right tools

Once you have chosen which assessment approaches are most appropriate for the culturally and linguistically diverse children you work with, you'll need to make informed decisions about which specific tools to use. This can be an intimidating challenge: many assessment tools aren't normed on diverse samples of children and are culturally biased. Cultural bias may not always be immediately evident, but even subtle forms of bias can result in distorted assessment results for children from diverse backgrounds.

For instance, certain testing situations may require children to have a level of impulse control that is not normally focused on in their native culture until they are much older. Also, in many cultures—as pointed out in Developing Cross-Cultural Competence, Fourth Edition—touch is the primary mode of communication, and can lead to difficulties when a child is exposed to assessments that promote language-first development.

To safeguard against biased assessment, use assessment tools that have been developed with a high level of consideration for cultural and linguistic diversity. These tools consider family and community contexts and include modifications to reduce potential bias. A resource such as LINKing Authentic Assessment and Early Childhood Intervention, Second Edition can help you compare assessment tools and determine which ones are appropriate for use with diverse children. This list from LINKing shows which of today's authentic, widely used assessment tools received a "high" rating in diversity features.

Partner with families

Collaborating with families is an important part of the assessment process. In many cultures, "family" means much more than just parents and their children, according to the authors of Assessing Young Children in Inclusive Settings; the term expands to include many others who play an important role in the child's life, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. As you prepare for assessment, it's important to consider what "family" means in each case, as well as other factors—such as cultural traditions, attitudes toward child rearing, and the family's primary language and reading ability—that may influence a child's development.

Promoting an open, respectful flow of communication between early childhood professionals and family members will lead to a more precise, comprehensive assessment process. To communicate and collaborate more effectively with families from diverse backgrounds, consider these tips from Developing Cross-Cultural Competence:

  • If families are English-language learners, learn and use greetings and other key words in the families' language.
  • Consider where the family would be most comfortable having the assessment done. If they are not comfortable with outsiders visiting their home, be prepared to use your program site or another location.
  • Use as few written forms as you can with families who are English-language learners. If forms must be used, ensure they are available in the family's language.
  • Explain each step of the assessment and its purpose to the family.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that some families may be surprised by the level of parent-professional partnership expected in the U.S. Don't expect every family to be comfortable with a high level of involvement, but be careful not to assume they don't want to be involved.
  • Have trained interpreters attend assessments and meetings with family members. Good interpreters should be able to interpret language as well as cultural cues. Remember that what isn't said is often just as important as what is said.
  • Consult with a cultural mediator or a guide from the family's culture. Learn more about the family within the context of their culture and community.

Download this guidance on working with interpreters and translators along with other tips on general characteristics of effective cross-cultural communicators.


As the number of culturally and linguistically diverse children in early childhood programs continues to rise, it is more important than ever to conduct assessments that are sensitive to each child's cultural background. Follow the guidelines in this article to achieve an accurate, comprehensive, and well-balanced portrait of the diverse students in your early childhood program.

This article features references to and downloads from the following resources:

Assessing Young Children in Inclusive Settings: The Blended Practices Approach

Alternative Approaches to Assessing Young Children, Second Edition

Developing Cross-Cultural Competence: A Guide for Working with Children and Their Families, Fourth Edition

LINKing Authentic Assessment and Early Childhood Intervention: Best Measures for Best Practices, Second Edition

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