3 Contextual Influences on Assessments

Darryl D'Souza

MARCH 2021

In this reflection, I will dwell on what I consider three factors that impinge on but often go overlooked while creating and implementing context-responsive assessments especially in multi-cultural environments in which we live and teach today.

Educational measurement has a pivotal influence on policy and programmatic changes at higher levels of education. Along the same lines, measurement in the classroom potentially has a large influence on teachers and students (Albano et al., 2020) especially in multi-cultural environments. While this is today acknowledged as a normal fact, it was not so when empiricism arrived on the world stage.


Empiricism is a philosophy that posits that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience (Duignan et al., 2020). Hence what can be seen or measured, according to empiricism, is what is considered real. When empiricism emerged, it brought with it the idea of systematization, objectivity, and decontextualization. Such positivist thinking led to the science of measurement where what is measured had to be objective, accurately quantifiable and reliable and, at the same time, any subjectivity had to be controlled (Gordon and Campbell, 2013) irrespective of its context. However, behavioural sciences which discuss the subject of human actions (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020) support the significance of context in human performance and behaviour (Gordon and Campbell, 2013). “Human performance adapts and is adapted by the context in which a performance is enacted” (CORDIS – EU Commission, 2012). Thus, when knowledge is produced and measurement tools are created to assess that knowledge systematically, the socio-historical, political, economic and cultural context has its own part to play (Gordon and Campbell, 2013; Optimizely, n.d.).

Let me dive deep into the social, political and cultural factors that have had an influence on assessments.

The Influence of Social Factors on Assessments

The current context that the world is reeling under is the onset of COVID-19 virus. This context has raised varied challenges for the educational field especially when assessing students remotely. Considering the purposes of assessment in higher education to support learning, execute accountability and provide certification, progress and transfer, Guangul et al., (2020) note that the trend of students taking online courses has increased with nearly 30% of US college students taking at least one online course. With Covid-19, this trend has further accelerated.

Taking the case of Middle East College (MEC), Guangul et al. (2020) assess the challenges of remote assessment in higher education institutions in COVID-19 lockdown period. While working a great deal at ensuring that online assessments accurately assess student learning, instructors have to also cope with ensuring academic integrity. Empiricism would understand assessments as an indication of the extent of factual knowledge acquired by students which would predict future educational achievement, provide a means of selecting suitable candidates for certain educational courses or occupation, and judge how much learning has taken (Adegoke, 2010). But in an online environment such as today, instructors find themselves at loss to judge the assimilation of factual knowledge by students due to the various ways students have at hand to circumvent processes to prevent intellectual dishonesty because in an online environment a lack of supervision becomes a serious drawback.

In the face of such sudden online transition due to Covid-19, Guangul et. al (2020) in their research evaluate proctored assessments, and offer suggestions of various alternatives to proctored remote exams such as report evaluation, quizzes, online presentation, annotated bibliography, fact sheet, simulation, and E-portfolio among others. Preparing different questions for each student was found to be the first and second option among respondents to minimize academic integrity violation. Online presentations also appeared to be good option by many respondents to control academic integrity violations. Furthermore, the preference of the respondents was also influenced by nature of the modules. For example, for some modules such as stress analysis, simulation is the core component of the module, and hence, the assessment should evaluate the simulation performance of the students using software. On the other hand, modules such as communication, and entrepreneurship and new venture creation do not need simulation/model/prototype. The other possibility that needs to be considered is the possibility of using combined evaluation methods for project-based assessments. In project and simulation/model/prototype assessments, the evaluation could incorporate online presentation or Power point with voice over presentation in addition to the submitted materials (Guangul et al., 2020). Thus, the social context of self-isolation due the shift to online education in the wake of COVID-19 showed a shift in the identification of appropriate assessment type that needed to be used by instructors for various modules in order to counter academic dishonesty. It is again not absolutely certain whether such measures work in all context and settings.

The Influence of Political Factors on Assessments

Over the last four decades, educational systems have become more and more vulnerable to economic, political and social developments. Recent global developments such as the crises in the Arab world and their impact on the refugee crisis; the Brexit crisis; and the introduction of Mercantile law by the US impacting China and the movement of goods around the world are some of the major political developments causing turbulence. The impact of crises and the chaos they create put pressure on education systems to change their governance systems, their administrative structures, and their management and curricular dimensions. Technology integration, curriculum adaptations, structural changes and new approaches to developing teachers are some of the common forms of change enforced by governments on different education systems (Arar et al., 2019). According to Noronha (2015), if assessment policies are decided at the political level, as they are in some states, then a state-level political change will influence the practice of those elements.

Considering the case of standardized testing, according to a research report by Heubert and Hauser (1999), standardized assessments have often been used to advance education policy goals and there has been continuing debate over this issue. By using policy to determine which types of instruction individual students receive, which in turn shape the content and format of instruction, and hold schools and students accountable for their performance, standardized assessments are believed to be one of the most powerful levers that elected officials and other policymakers have used to influence what happens in local schools and classrooms. This enthusiasm of policymakers to use assessments and test as policy strategies is often looked at with caution by experts. Even though, policymakers sometimes acknowledge the need for more research on this issue, they are seen to rely on standardized assessments either considering this issue as a fleeting opportunity for action, or because they believe that more good than harm may be done, even with imperfect assessments (Heubert and Hauser, 1999). However, some testing experts have expressed concern that if test scores are used to bestow rewards or impose sanctions, risks such as widening the gap in educational opportunities and haves and have-nots, narrowing the curriculum, centralizing educational decision making, and deprofessionalizing teachers may widely seep into education (Heubert and Hauser, 1999). In this context, educational organizations and students, who are more permanent than political combinations, are left groping to cope with these changes and how they will affect their futures.

Cultural Factors Impinging on Assessments

Increased migration is bringing in much diversity into the classroom globally, as well as increasing classroom assessment tasks and responsibilities for instructors. Understanding differences in factors such as students’ values, interests, competencies and experiences is important where teaching and learning in such contexts is concerned. Norvedt et al. (2020) in their research article, focussing on classroom responsive assessments, address the issue of how migrant students get impacted by summative and formative assessment in the classroom. They propose that the generally considered valid and reliable assessment practices may need to be adapted to include diverse cultural ways of knowing, participating, and expressing of students from diverse cultures. Proposing culturally responsive assessments, Norvedt et al. (2020) ask instructors to include students’ cultural ways of communicating and acting within and outside the classroom respecting students’ perceptions of culture and their ways of identifying with peers and teachers alike. Having respect for different aspects of culture may mean respecting student’ preferences to learn in a group which would then mean considering seeking collective rather than individual achievement. Furthermore, being cognisant of classroom activities that conflict with students’ culturally based ways of participating may mean for example being accommodative to a student’s preference not to be asked for a personal response or to critique another student’s reasoning for fear of being offensive.

It would be fair to say that for students from migrant backgrounds, the outcomes of the assessment are significant for their future learning and development, just as for other students. However, as shown by Bernstein (2000 cited in Norvedt et al. 2020) and Bourdieu (1984, 1990 cited in Norvedt et al. 2020), expressions of culture (i.e. cultural traits) are not equally valued in society nor in school.

“Through unequal classification and valuation of the individual’s culture, knowledge, beliefs and values, schools create social hierarchies. This situation then affects how students’ knowledge is valued in the school and, therefore, also affects how students are assessed, as well as the feedback and even the grades they receive. Such equity issues have implications for teachers’ convictions and practices” (Norvedt 2020, p.9).

Norvedt et al. (2020) maintain that culturally responsive education and assessment challenges patterns of discrimination and exclusion and promotes academic achievement and equality of educational opportunity for all.


In conclusion, I believe that educators creating assessments to measure learning must be aware of the context and settings the students are learning in and background from where students have arrived. Being aware of the social, political, cultural settings in which assessments are created and implemented will go a great deal in making teaching and learning a formative environment in the classroom and online.



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Heubert, J. P., & Hauser, R. M. (1999). Assessment Policy and Politics. National Academy Press. https://www.nap.edu/read/6336/chapter/4.

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Contextual Influences on Assessments by Darryl D'Souza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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