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Sprig Learning builds personalized, culturally relevant early learning assessments and resources that support schools, teachers, families, and students. 

In building these early learning programs, there are certain measures we take to provide the best learning experience for students. One of them is reducing implicit bias. 

Bias is inherent to all of us and is caused by personal experience, experience of others, cultural norms, the information we process, and the values in our education systems. Typically, we hear of two primary forms of bias:

1. Implicit bias. This is an automatic or unconscious reaction someone has toward other people. These attitudes and stereotypes can negatively impact our understanding, actions, and decision-making.

2. Explicit bias. This is the traditional conceptualization of bias. With explicit bias, individuals are aware of their prejudices and attitudes toward certain groups. Positive or negative preferences for a particular group are conscious. 

For this blog, we will focus on implicit bias and its impact on education. In early learning, educators and staff all have implicit biases when supporting their students. Given that bias is a product of our experiences, it is not desirable nor possible to eliminate. 

However, understanding and identifying bias, and its systemic impact on actions and outcomes at scale, is indeed possible — and essential in our efforts to counteract the harmful effects of bias on learning in the classroom.  Because the early years are a crucial juncture in the life of schoolchildren, the onus is on us to mitigate the effects of implicit bias as much as possible.


What is the Role of Implicit Bias in Early Learning

Given that educators have such an important part to play in the development and growth of young children, implicit bias affects their understanding of situations, decisions and actions. 

With implicit bias, the educator may be unaware that biases, rather than the facts of a situation, are driving his or her decision-making. This behavior is often labelled interchangeably as ‘unconscious bias’.

It is something that is not limited to people either. Implicit bias permeates throughout education resources, assessments, content, and processes, tracing back to their creator. 

The risk with implicit bias is not just how they make students feel, but also the impact the bias produces.

Affecting students’ attitudes and feelings can discourage early learners  from expressing themselves, and also creates the potential for students to learn from and develop their own biases themselves. 

Bias also affects learning by impacting the quality of assessments. When the outcome of assessments are affected negatively by implicit bias, it impacts the future learning outcomes of students.


Mitigating Early Learning Implicit Biases

While removing all bias may be inescapable, there are things that can be done to mitigate it.


Use a Mix of Formal and Informal Formative Assessments

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends the use of both formal and informal screening to assess children’s growth across all domains of development and learning. 

Indeed, there is a time and place for both types of assessments. Formal assessments occur at regular intervals in a structured setting, while it’s best if informal assessments occur every single day and are integrated into the teaching process .

How it mitigates bias: The more singular and isolated an assessment is, the greater the reliance on it to support the child’s learning and to determine the outcome of the student. 

Screenings are necessary to detect where a child is in terms of their learning development, but they should be complimented by formative assessments, which can be both formal and informal in nature.

With ongoing and regular opportunities to assess throughout the school year, it’s more likely that educators acquire a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of all the situational factors that affect learning in the student’s life.


Use Culturally Responsive Assessments

  • NAEYC further recommends that assessments be culturally, linguistically and individually appropriate and address all of children’s development, progress, strengths and needs.

The average classroom is more diverse than it has ever been, so it’s important to develop culturally responsive assessments. Looking at data from 2015, nearly 1 in 4 kids who attended public schools in the US spoke a language other than English in their home. In total, 176 different languages are spoken in New York City public schools. 

As demonstrated above, when left unconscious – biases can influence assessments for early learners, altering the potential learning trajectories for children. For example, this can sometimes lead to identification and assignment of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), labeling the learner for the remainder of their school career. 

While the extra funding and support that an IEP provides has plenty of benefit for learners in need, this labeling has also proven to lower self esteem, lower expectations from teachers and parents, and peer issues.

Outside of potential bias in the development of these screens and instruments themselves, there is implicit bias during the delivery of the assessment as well. Canadian researchers Ungerlieder and Riley document situations where teachers have lower expectations for Indigenous students in their classrooms relative to their non-Indigenous students. 

Lowered expectations often influence teachers’ appraisals of Indigenous students and introduce bias into their scoring practices.

How it mitigates bias: Culturally responsive assessment involves being focused on the student, and ensuring their involvement throughout the entire assessment process. Many children grow up speaking a language other than English at home and are exposed to a variety of cultures and transitions that are not always visible in a school setting.

When students are able to see their language and culture reflected in the curriculum and classroom assessments, they are more likely to engage and be successful.

When cultural and linguistic experiences are accounted for in assessments, this improves the accuracy of the results and ultimately increases student learning.


Make the Assessment Process More Comprehensive

  • Sprig Learning recommends a holistic, 360 degree view of early learning experiences in the home, school and community. To do this effectively, and reduce the potential fear and anxiety around assessments, teachers help provide context for the material prior to the assessment.  This includes befriending a puppet who plays a key role at assessment time and practicing  the 3-point scale used during the assessment.

Connecting the school to the home and the larger community is so important because it helps to fill in the blanks when it comes to understanding a child. The assessment itself is connected to the rest of school activities. It compliments the daily routine in an early years classroom. From the student’s perspective, assessment looks and feels like a normal day. 

How it mitigates bias: By collecting different perspectives on learning from the teachers, parents, other caregivers and most importantly the students themselves, this limits the potential bias in the overall, holistic assessment.. 

When it comes to the actual assessment, students are able to interact with the technology directly (like an iPAD) and demonstrate their learning. This reduces any subjective observations, and possible implicit bias, that a teacher may bring to that observation. As teachers sit beside and  guide the student through the assessments, they are also able to observe the child and their learning. 

Observational assessment is extremely important.  Over the course of the year, teachers are also able to track the learning portfolios of children, noticing the body of work they have completed to identify strengths and learning gaps. 

Dr. Grace from the Little School talks about the importance of observations and portfolios in assessing children. She calls portfolios “a collection of authentic assessments” and says that observations can help educators to arrange the environment and develop curricular plans and materials.

Thus, by adopting a comprehensive view and by using portfolios as a part of assessments, it’s easy to keep everyone in the loop about the progress of the child.


Reliance on Standardization and Implicit Bias

Standardized tests are normative in that they compare a child to their peers who are of the same age. Some standardized tests can further drill down results by gender, socio-economic and cultural background. 

But not every standardized test will use exact segmentation for fair comparison. Even if they do, such standardized tests are often meant to discriminate between groups of students, but not always test for behaviors that are educationally relevant. 

Relying on standardized tests alone does not yield direct information for choosing curricular content, deciding on environmental factors and guiding instructional strategies. 

In fact, when comparison is the only learning goal, there is a higher likelihood of implicit bias. 

Afterall, it’s meant to only categorize students into different levels, but not actually make the connection to differentiated instruction that supports individuals and groups of students.


Alternate Approaches to Reduce Implicit Bias

Alternative approaches are beneficial when it comes to early learning assessments.  

A comprehensive and holistic approach can be undertaken if there is adequate collaboration between teachers and caregivers. It’s something Sprig embraces wholeheartedly. 

When there is a comprehensive outlook on childhood development, the interrelationships between developmental domains are evident. While standardization targets everything as a separate subject, holistic learning looks at the linkage between multiple domains such as: motor skill development, oral language, numeracy and literacy. It makes use of portfolio and dynamic assessments, which are considered alternate approaches.

Portfolio assessments usually involve activities in and out of the classroom. Different learning materials such as animated stories and levelled readers are used, so there are enough things to interest early learners as they progress through the curriculum.

Dynamic assessments consider both the role of the educator and the child in assessments. Instead of just being an observer, they play a supportive role during the assessment whereby the students can also use the assessment as a learning opportunity.

It reduces the Hawthorne Effect, which is a type of bias where individuals being studied modify their behavior because of the awareness of being observed. 

It’s why dynamic assessments are so important where educators take the trouble to immerse themselves in the process as well, so assessments feel like an activity, and not a test.


Uncovering Old Bias to Move Forward

Holistic assessments accept that learning is a journey that begins at birth and continues throughout the early childhood years into adolescence. 

Two students may get different marks on a summative assessment despite both of them having completed all homework, tasks and activities related to the assessment. 

In such scenarios, it is likely that there was a gap in prior grade levels. This too can surface in the form of implicit bias, where we take completion as a sign of understanding, not realizing that the learning material did not always make sense to all students.

In the case two students have different rates of completion of tasks and activities, such discrepancy can often be explained by skill gaps. It’s not the missed work that is producing different results, but often the different skill gaps that were not previously addressed.

Based on any mistakes, it’s possible to target instruction and provide enough scaffolding to young students to help them address those mistakes and move on to the next grade level. But it doesn’t address the root of the problem—old implicit biases.

Rather than measuring standards from the current grade level, holistic assessments look at the whole life of the child to uncover missed learning opportunities. 

But is there even such a thing as missed learning? We round up this article with a case study.


A Case Study to Reduce Implicit Bias

Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) in California looked at growth data segmented by groups such as English Learner, Migrant and Homeless. These groups had made significant progress during the pandemic compared to the rest of the groups. 

Had LUSD only relied on national reports focusing only on learning loss, it would have missed this opportunity to provide personalized support to groups that were showing promise. LUSD uses real-time data from formative assessments to personalize learning at the classroom level.

Such a case demonstrates a strengths-based approach where the bias is not in uncovering a threat in time, but rather missing an opportunity. It reminds us that there is so much hope in igniting the passion of learning in young students if only we are able to mitigate bias.

If you have not considered alternate approaches to standardized assessments, there is a good case to be made for them. Secondly, whatever approach you adopt, it’s important to supplement the process with equally diverse learning materials.

Learn more about how Sprig’s AI Engine reduces implicit bias in classrooms.