During assessment, a child that comes from a culturally and linguistically diverse background may not have had exposure to the knowledge or experience that is present in the test or expected by the evaluator. This lack of culturally or linguistically sensitive assessments and/or evaluators can lead to high rates of disproportionality in referrals to special services.

Culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors of a specific group of people. Cultural bias is bias directed towards cultural differences. Cultural bias is evident in assessment in testing materials as well as in the evaluator. Most commercially available testing materials are produced by test designers representing mainstream, middle-class (socioeconomic status), Standard American English speaking culture. Cultural bias occurs in testing materials when test items assess knowledge or experiences that are specific to a certain culture. In comparison, cultural bias in the examiner comes from expectations based on his or her experiences and background rather than that of the culture of the child. In both cases, the child being tested may not have had exposure to the knowledge or experience that is present in the test or expected by the evaluator.

For example, the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL) has a subtest for idiomatic expressions. Idioms are highly culturally dependent. A child being evaluated may not know the meaning of the idioms on the test because he or she has never heard them. However, the test manual indicates that idioms can be used to identify language impairment according to the norms listed. Test questions may also be culturally biased because they may refer to experiences or items that are unfamiliar or taboo to the culture of the child being tested. Many things people expect children of certain ages to do could be based in culture rather than typical development. Another example could be that an examiner might interpret a child not displaying a specific skill, such as labeling colors, as indicative of a delay, when this actually has a cultural explanation.

Examiners can use “cultural informants,” such as family members or members of the community, to determine what behaviors are typical and expected in that culture. Otherwise, a child that does not come from a mainstream American cultural background (culturally/linguistically diverse) could be misidentified as having a language impairment, and labeled as having a disability, due to different cultural experiences rather than a true impairment.

The implications of misidentification of a typically developing child cannot be overstated. Misidentification affects the student’s and others’ perceptions of the child’s capacities and abilities as well as expectations of achievement. Special education settings often have reduced academic rigor and opportunities and children are denied relationships with typically developing peers that could serve as role models (Harry & Klingner, 2006). As a result of cultural and other biases, minorities and other culturally and linguistically diverse children make up a disproportionate amount of children receiving special education services (Hehir, 2005). On a larger scale, when standardized testing is biased against minorities and those from lower socioeconomic status, it can encourage racism and misconceptions about people from those backgrounds.

For example, consider what happened on Oct. 14, 2007 in an interview published by The Times of London. In this interview, James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for deciphering the double-helix of DNA, is quoted as saying that while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa. All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really the case.” Even an individual as educated as James D. Watson was not aware of the biases inherent in the type of testing used in standardized intelligence tests which resulted in diverse individuals being consistently labeled as less intelligent. The racism he was expressing in this quote was supported by “scientific evidence!”


Harry, B. & Klingner, J., (2006). Why are so many minority students in special education?: Understanding race and disability in schools. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.