Can educational assessments be decolonized?

I’ve witnessed how harmful colonial evaluations can be — so I sat down with expert Carolyn Roberts to unpack how we got here, and imagine a better future
Carolyn Roberts, a Coast Salish woman belonging to the Squamish Nation, N’Quatqua Nation, and Sto:lo from the Tzeachten Nation, works to support the wellness of Indigenous children in the public school system. Photo submitted by Carolyn Roberts

Educational assessments — an evaluation system widely used in public schools across “Canada” — are supposed to rank our children’s intelligence, abilities and skill-levels.

But for sqilx’w (Indigenous) people, they’re actually contributing to our erasure.

When I was working as an Indigenous educator and Auntie (advocate) in kinship with children and families in rural and remote communities throughout “British Columbia,” I became concerned about the way these assessments were harming sqilx’w children. 

To give one example, I recall about three years ago that in communities where there were high-fluencies of Indigenous languages, bilingual children would often get targeted for having “speech impediments,” since they didn’t pronounce English words the same as non-Indigenous children did.

As a result of these colonial assessments, speech therapists would get sent in to “fix” this perceived problem — giving the children exercises to shift their mouth muscles in order to strengthen their abilities to speak English. As a result, I witnessed the children’s abilities to speak their Indigenous languages diminishing, and slowly becoming more difficult. 

This was only one example of how assessments were being set up against the best interests of the holistic child. It ignored their entire being, and promoted instead what would better suit them in a colonial world. 

As a mother, my children have also been assessed using colonial intelligence scales — which often remove their brilliance and intelligence as sqilx’w children. These systems don’t account for children who are being brought up to understand their responsibilities as sqilx’w people — according to their own stories and teachings, rather than the understandings the colonial education system has attempted to drill in. 

In these colonial systems, their whole being has never been acknowledged.

Like my daughter says, when she gets to her school she must “Leave the Indian at the door.” She has no belonging in these colonial institutions. She now says she goes to school for the collective community experience and to develop her self-awareness rather than trying to succeed to their standards, since she’s been mis-assessed so many times in her 17 years of life. 

Clearly, the current assessment process needs improvement. So in an attempt to get more clarity and insight on this topic, I had a conversation with Carolyn Roberts, a sqilx’w academic who is a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in the eTAP Program. Carolyn has been an educator and administrator for more than 20 years and is currently an Indigenous teaching fellow in the Department of Education at SFU.

Listen here for Carolyn’s self-location. 

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsie: Can you define educational assessments for folks who may not know what those are?

Carolyn: The most critical piece of assessment comes down to how we view education as a whole. The system was made by white settlers for white settlers, and so those who are most likely able to succeed in this system will be white settlers. But the students on the flip side of that, who don’t necessarily fit into the mold of what our education system is today, then fall to the wayside and get pushed out of the system. These pushed-out students are knowledge holders of their own lived experiences and histories. This is not currently acknowledged within the Western, colonial education system.

The colonial narrative of assessment is competitive by the nature of grades themselves. Placing students and knowledge in a hierarchy to work against each other. So I think that when we are talking about how we do assessments, as an “end goal” final mark process, this is the core of the problem with our current model of assessment. What I believe we should be looking at is a process-oriented assessment, with a focus on the journey.  

Using the end goal model of assessment forces the process to be getting good grades, so you can get into a good university, also get scholarships, and then hopefully get a good job. 

But I think what we could be focusing on is the whole child and all they bring to the table. Not all students will continue on to higher education. So how are we supporting the other students that we need in trades and other jobs that don’t require University? 

K: Can you give more context around how “B.C.’s” education system was formed?

C: When settlers came to this land, they came with hungry eyes. In the Halq’eméylem language, the word for settlers is xwélmexw, the literal translation means ‘always hungry.’ Settlers saw this land as a commodity and something they could take from. They wanted to come and take what they could, and they perceived the land to be free and clear to do what they pleased. When they moved in, they forced Indigenous people off of their homelands. Settlers then started to create school systems in order to educate their children and assimilate Indigenous children. 

So as the school system evolved, there’s this Western colonial perspective of what school was and was developed for people to become literate so that they could do some of the jobs that they needed them to do. So that’s when the school system started. 

Egerton Ryerson, who is known as the father of the public education system in Canada, is also the person who created the blueprint for residential schools as we know it today. So it was the same person. And the whole context of that was assimilation: We need to assimilate everybody, so that we can have and create worker bees for the work that needs to be done — and that was the context in how school was created. 

K: So how do we shift that focus over time? Or can we?

C: I believe that the conversation about education and how we educate needs to change. What is the end goal of education today? How do we support and honour all students and make sure that we are not focusing on just one narrative being told within the education system?

We need to be able to have students who are strong in who they are, and believe in who they are as people. The way the current colonial education system is set up is that the teacher is the knower of all things and students are there only as consumers of this knowledge. The teacher imparts all this knowledge and the student is then told to regurgitate it back to the teacher, with no agency over their learning. This is a one-sided story that we have been taught through the Western colonial education system. This style of education does not hold space for students who are unable to thrive with this style, which then creates students who hate the school, believe that they are not smart and eventually get pushed out of the system. 

As Indigenous people, we’re participatory people. If we’re teaching or learning something new, you usually have something in your hands to work with, and stories are being exchanged. In community it is a collaborative process of bringing people together to share and learn from each other. The colonial system is built on separation. It divides learners by age, divides subjects, and divides the teacher from the student in the hierarchy of power. The holistic model of the whole human is not seen within colonial systems. The unbelievable thing is that, at the end of being educated, we expect to have whole human beings. How can this happen when the system itself has shown us that we are all severed from each other and the knowledge?

So right now, I think there is such a disconnect for how education is, and what education could be.

K: So where do you think assessments, as they stand currently, are missing the mark with Indigenous students?

C: I think the biggest part of the problem with assessment is the power dynamics between the teacher and the student. The teacher in the power position says, I’m going to tell you what you’re going to learn, I’m going to tell you how long you have to learn it and then I’m going to grade you on how much you know and can regurgitate back to me, by the end of this specific time period. 

Whereas in community, as Indigenous people, we know that when the work starts it starts, and when it ends it ends. There is no colonial linear concept of time. For us, time is different, it takes the time that it needs to take in order for the student to understand the teachings. This could be a short amount of time or years. Students are also acknowledged as knowledge holders of their lived experience. Reciprocity is how Indigenous communities grow and learn together. I believe that all students, not just Indigenous students, can all benefit from being a co-creator and a co-collaborator in this process of learning. 

I invite my students in higher education to be co-creators of their learning. I start with subjects that we’re going to be talking about through our time together. I then give students time to pick from these topics and select what they feel like they want to learn more about.  I then allow them to think about how they want to engage in learning about those topics? Giving students options to learn in the ways that work the best for them, be it by books, podcasts, videos, movies, etc. Then together we co-create a way for the student to show learning that works the best for them. 

Sometimes in this process you find out things you could have never found out if you had directed them in the work. Sometimes students’ work didn’t turn out the way they thought it would — but what a great learning experience. Rather than being terrified in that moment, like the pressure of the colonial system does us, telling ourselves, ‘I didn’t get it, and I’m going to fail’ and it crushes our human spirit. Whereas if we leave this open as a project, and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t learn what I wanted to, but I did learn this.’

It’s then giving agency to the student to have choices and knowing that it’s okay sometimes for things to work out, but we’re still resilient enough to be able to step into something else and do something else within that. What I find using this way of engaging in learning is that students always come back with a deeper understanding and connection to their work. I don’t see test writing and regurgitation as a long-lasting benefit in education. 

K: How can the education systems improve?

C: Allowing students to be co-creators and co-collaborators of their learning. Sharing their learning through multiple ways, including writing, podcasts, artwork, infographics, and ways that play to their strengths, will honour students in who they are and show who they are in the learning process. This acknowledges that there are other ways to learn, grow, and connect with eachother. One of the best ways that I have found to show your learning is being able to teach someone else what you have learned. 

By giving students agency, giving students a voice on how and what they’re going to be assessed on, will encourage their participation in the learning process. Working in co-creation with students on selecting together what are your strengths in this work,  how can we lead this work towards your strengths in order to build upon what you already know? It’s a conversation with that student on how you can co-create this learning together, because it’s a journey, it never ends, it just continues. So it doesn’t begin and end during our class time. Together, it is a constant journey. So what I would really like my students to leave my classroom with is a critical eye and curiosity to always want to learn more.

To learn more about this read Carolyn’s blog, and check out her website where she shares a plethora of information on how to decolonize the learning journey. 


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