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Cultural and Home Language Influences on Children’s Responses to Science Assessments

by Aurolyn Luykx, Okhee Lee, Margarette Mahotiere, Benjamin Lester, Juliet Hart & Rachael Deaktor - 2007


A critical issue in academic assessment is the effect of children’s language and culture on their measured performance. Research on this topic has rarely focused on science education, because science is commonly (though erroneously) assumed to be “culture free.”

Students’ scientific understandings are influenced by the cultural values, experiences, and epistemologies of their home communities. Efforts to minimize cultural bias include designing tests to be “culturally neutral” and, conversely, tailoring assessments to specific cultural groups; both approaches are theoretically and practically problematic. Several studies have focused on testing accommodations for English language learners (ELLs), but accommodations raise validity and feasibility issues and are limited by “English-only” policies.

This article stresses the linkages between language and culture, drawing on contemporary literacy theory and research on scientific communities and groups traditionally marginalized from science.


To examine how children’s prior linguistic and cultural knowledge mediates their engagement with school science, as reflected in their responses on science assessments.


Over 1,500 students from six elementary schools serving diverse populations.

Research Design:

Project-developed assessments included items requiring students to explain scientific phenomena. Scoring revealed that students misinterpreted some items, and scorers had difficulty understanding some students’ responses. Project personnel then undertook qualitative discourse analysis of responses on all tests.


Analysis revealed phonological/orthographic and semantic interference from students’ home languages; responses reflecting students’ cultural beliefs and practices; and “languacultural” features related to genre, authorial voice, pragmatic framing, and textual organization.


Science tests inevitably contain tacit cultural and linguistic knowledge that is not equally accessible to all students. Using “real-life scenarios” in assessment items may confuse students whose lives do not reflect mainstream norms. Furthermore, English-medium assessments are unlikely to accurately measure ELLs’ science knowledge.

Teachers can learn to recognize factors that impede ELLs from grasping or expressing science concepts clearly. They should also assure that all students understand the discursive and textual conventions inherent in assessment instruments.

Linguistic and cultural factors shape science knowledge not only of students but of teachers, scientists, and test developers. Uncovering the factors shaping students’ academic performance requires fine-grained qualitative analysis and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.

In recent decades, the increasing attention to cultural and linguistic diversity within the United States has highlighted the role of children’s culture and language in their appropriation of academic content. Educational research on these questions has focused mostly on classroom interaction and teaching/learning styles rather than on specific academic disciplines or subject-area knowledge. Similarly, research on specific subject areas has seldom considered the role of language and culture in children’s learning, and this is especially true with regard to science and math learning. One reason for this is the common assumption that science, along with mathematics, constitutes a universally valid, “culture-free” body of knowledge that remains fundamentally unchanged even when it is taken up by different social or cultural groups (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1989; Matthews, 1998).1

This study, which is part of a larger longitudinal research project, examines cultural and home language influences in elementary students’ constructed responses to science assessments. Bridging the divide between “culturalist” and “disciplinary” approaches, it illustrates some of the ways in which children’s engagement with scientific information is mediated by their prior linguistic and cultural knowledge. The research questions were not devised a priori; rather, they emerged in the process of data collection for other purposes (i.e., coding of student responses on pretests and posttests). Analysis of the data will show that science constitutes neither a culture-free enterprise nor a universally consistent body of knowledge. Rather, scientific concepts, as well as the assessment instruments designed to measure students’ understanding of them, are infused with specific (though tacit) cultural and linguistic knowledge that is not equally accessible to all groups of students. The results of the study have implications not only for the accurate assessment of students’ science learning but also for how science knowledge and instruction are perceived by teachers, students, policymakers, and educational researchers.


All children bring to the learning process their own ways of interpreting the natural and social worlds, acquired from their cultural environments, discursive traditions, and personal circumstances. For “mainstream” children (i.e., White, middle-class native English speakers), the linguistic and cultural knowledge they acquire at home is largely continuous with the expectations and assumptions of the school. Nevertheless, other children also bring “funds of knowledge” (Moll, 1992; Vélez-Ibáñez & Greenberg, 1988) from their home environments that can serve as intellectual resources for science learning (Lee, 2002; Warren, Ballenger, Ogonowski, Rosebery, & Hudicourt-Barnes, 2001). To be most effective, science instruction and assessment should take into account students’ prior knowledge and the intellectual resources they bring to the pedagogical encounter.

At the same time, some children’s linguistic and cultural traditions may be inconsistent with the scientific orientation toward knowledge, the nature of specific science disciplines, or the ways in which science disciplines are taught in school. Such inconsistencies may create difficulties for students learning science and for the teachers trying to teach them (Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999; Atwater, 1994; Lee, 1999; Moje, Collazo, Carillo, & Marx, 2001). It is thus important for teachers to consider students’ prior knowledge and to articulate its relationship with school science to make science accessible and meaningful for all children (Cobern, 1998; Cobern & Aikenhead, 1998; Lee, 2003, 2004; Lee & Fradd, 1998; Warren et al., 2001).

A critical issue concerning valid and equitable assessment in multicultural/multilingual settings is how to address linguistic and cultural influences on students’ measured performance. Solano-Flores and Nelson-Barber (2001) asserted that the ways students make sense of science test items are influenced by the values, beliefs, experiences, communication patterns, teaching and learning styles, and epistemologies originating in their cultural backgrounds and the socioeconomic conditions in which they live. Furthermore, children of differing cultural backgrounds often have different ways of expressing their ideas, which may mask their knowledge and abilities in the eyes of teachers unfamiliar with the linguistic and cultural norms of students’ home communities. Although mainstream children are also subject to cultural influences, the linguistic and cultural knowledge that mediates their academic performance is more likely to parallel that which guides the actions and interpretations of teachers, researchers, and test developers. Thus, the tacit knowledge of mainstream children is more likely to facilitate their performance than to interfere with it.

Linguistic and cultural factors in students’ test performance—as in learning more generally—are tightly intertwined. However, most studies have opted to focus on one or the other. Although some of the examples analyzed below focus on features that are primarily linguistic (e.g., phonological/orthographic confusions), and others highlight nonlinguistic cultural influences (e.g., the living conditions of low-income children), of particular interest are those influences that we call “languacultural” (after Agar, 1994). This term reflects a theoretical stance that holds that examining the organic linkages between language and culture is more analytically productive than positing a categorical distinction between the two. Approached from this perspective, the analysis of linguistic behavior (e.g., pencil-and-paper science tests) reveals how cultural meanings are expressed through linguistic forms and how linguistic forms are interpreted in the light of existing cultural frames.

Below, we examine the existing literature analyzing the effects of children’s cultural and linguistic diversity on academic assessment. The studies are grouped according to their focus on “linguistic” or “cultural” factors, as conceived by the researchers themselves. We then discuss research that has approached assessment from a languacultural perspective, albeit without employing Agar’s terminology.


Attempts to devise equitable assessments for English language learners (ELLs) have encountered numerous difficulties; among these is the fact that ELLs’ developing English proficiency is usually conceived (and measured) in terms of their mastery of a set of technical skills rather than of the cultural frameworks and communicative competencies associated with the dominant language community. Research in academic assessment of ELLs has focused mostly on the effectiveness of various testing accommodations (e.g., use of bilingual dictionaries or subject-specific glossaries, extra time to complete assessments; Abedi, 2004; Abedi, Hofstetter, & Lord, 2004; O’Sullivan, Lauko, Grigg, Qian, & Zhang, 2003; Shepard, Taylor, & Betebenner, 1998). Although assessments can be made more comprehensible to ELLs by avoiding complex grammatical constructions, polysemic terms (i.e., terms with more than one meaning), and idiomatic expressions (Kirschner, Spector-Cohen, & Wexler, 1992), such accommodations are not regularly employed and may not reflect the type of English used in instruction.

A more substantial accommodation would be to translate assessment instruments into students’ home languages. However, this raises issues of validity relative to the English-language versions and may still fail to give an accurate picture of students’ content knowledge if instruction has been carried out in English or if students have not developed literacy skills in the home language. In addition, because interpretive cultural frameworks vary from one speech community to another, translating assessment instruments would not eliminate all sources of possible confusion and may well introduce new ones. In response to these concerns, some researchers have argued that consideration of students’ home languages should guide the entire assessment process, including test development, test review, test use, and test interpretation (O’Malley & Valdez Pierce, 1994; Short, 1993; Solano-Flores & Trumbull, 2003). Alternatively, giving ELLs the same items in both English and their native language has the potential to produce more fine-grained understandings of the interactions among first- and second-language proficiency, students’ content knowledge, and the linguistic and content demands of test items (Solano-Flores, Lara, Sexton, & Navarrete, 2001). However, these more nuanced perspectives have so far gained little ground in policy and assessment circles.


Whereas the examination of linguistic influences in assessment carries its own methodological challenges, the issues become even more complicated when one considers the simultaneous influence of children’s varying cultural backgrounds. Different languages present themselves to the teacher (and to the researcher) as more bounded and discrete than different cultures, though neither language nor culture is as bounded or discrete as is often assumed. Assessment occurs in one language or another or, rarely, some combination thereof, and in most cases it is a relatively simple matter to identify children’s home language.2 In contrast, the constitutive elements and boundaries of a culture are harder to define. Teachers and students seldom operate within the parameters of a single, discrete culture; rather, they are subject to a multitude of cultural influences from numerous sources on a daily basis. Academic assessments are themselves cultural products associated with a particular cultural tradition, though the cultural basis of assessment practices often goes unrecognized. “Translating” assessment instruments from one cultural tradition to another, even when these share the same language, is an even more subtle and slippery task than translating them from one language to another. Despite the pervasive nature of culture and the fact that it shapes nearly all human activities in ways specific to each social group, many educators continue to believe that culturally neutral assessments are possible; in contrast, the impossibility of “linguistically neutral assessments” is more intuitively obvious.

Efforts to reduce cultural bias in academic assessments have generally taken one of two opposing directions: (1) development of assessments tailored to the cultural knowledge of specific student groups and (2) development of supposedly neutral assessments, in which the reliance on tacit cultural knowledge is minimized. There are drawbacks to each of these approaches. The first requires in-depth knowledge of students’ cultural worlds and the integration of potentially conflicting fields of knowledge, not to mention the difficulties posed by the presence, within the same classroom, of children with different cultural backgrounds and different degrees of assimilation to the mainstream. Solano-Flores and Nelson-Barber (2001) proposed the notion of “cultural validity” to frame sociocultural influences on how students make sense of and respond to science items. They identified five areas in which the notion of cultural validity can contribute to improving science assessment: student epistemology, student language proficiency, cultural worldviews, cultural communication and socialization styles, and student life context and values. They suggested that “ideally, if cultural validity issues were addressed properly at the inception of an assessment and throughout its entire process of development, there would be no cultural bias and providing accommodations for cultural minorities would not be necessary” (p. 557). Still, the question of what would be entailed in “properly addressing” such issues is far from simple.

In contrast, the other approach holds that assessment instruments can be designed to be culturally neutral—that is, that all or most of the tacit cultural knowledge that goes into their design and use can be identified and removed, so that the instruments measure only the content knowledge being assessed. This view is not in line with research on the relationship between culture and cognition, which holds that cultural frameworks are constantly, though largely unconsciously, mobilized in the interpretation and organization of new knowledge (e.g., Moll, 1992; Rogoff, 1990; Rogoff & Lave, 1984). This does not mean that attempts to remove obvious instances of cultural bias from assessments are futile. Certainly, the reliance on tacit knowledge that places children of particular backgrounds at a disadvantage is to be avoided to the degree possible. Our argument is that the degree to which this is possible is significantly less than what designers and users of academic assessments may assume.


Though it is sometimes analytically convenient to treat linguistic issues in academic assessment as separate from cultural issues, the two domains are closely intertwined, and addressing one without the other may seriously misrepresent the processes by which knowledge is constructed and expressed. Languages are tightly bound to the social and cultural contexts in which they are used; lexical, morphological, and grammatical elements embody culturally specific ways of conceptualizing the natural and social world. Similarly, the organization of discourse (i.e., longer “chunks” of speech or writing extending beyond the sentence level) varies widely, even among cultural groups that share the same language; this is a common source of misunderstanding in classrooms and other intercultural settings (Cazden, 2001; Corson, 2001; Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981; Scollon & Scollon, 1995). Agar (1994) coined the term languaculture to express this organic link between language and culture, arguing that neither can be productively studied without consideration of the other.

Some cultural differences are explicitly coded in language, others exist largely outside of language, and yet others are linked to covert linguistic categories that speakers employ without being consciously aware of them. With regard to written language, which constitutes the data set on which the current study is based, contemporary literacy theorists have shown that a considerable amount of cultural knowledge is required to interpret even seemingly simple texts (Boyarin, 1992; Gee, 1998; Street, 1993). The ways in which students organize their own texts reflect the discursive norms of their home communities and the norms of academic writing transmitted by the school (Ivanic, 1998; Michaels, 1981). In light of these theoretical advances, it makes sense to examine cultural and linguistic factors in assessment as related aspects of a single broader phenomenon. Some features of the test responses described in this article can be ascribed to purely structural linguistic factors (e.g., orthographic/phonological difficulties), whereas others are related to aspects of culture that are not closely associated with specific linguistic forms. However, several responses display influences that can be considered languacultural, inasmuch as they reflect linguistic differences that are rooted in cultural differences or cultural differences that are encoded in specific features of a particular language.


This study is part of a larger, longitudinal research project examining the process and impact of an instructional intervention to promote science learning and English proficiency, oral and written, with a culturally and linguistically diverse student population in six elementary schools in a large urban school district. The study focuses on cultural and linguistic interference in the open-ended responses of third- and fourth-grade students on paper-and-pencil science tests administered at the beginning and end of the 2001–2002 school year. Specifically, we examine children’s responses linked to (1) linguistic influences in terms of phonological, orthographic or semantic features from children’s home language; (2) cultural influences in terms of specific knowledge or beliefs deriving from children’s homes and communities, and implicit cultural assumptions underlying students’ responses; and (3) languacultural features of children’s written discourse (e.g., genre, authorial voice, and pragmatic framing of responses). Data analysis focused on how these factors shaped children’s interpretations of test items, their written responses, and teachers’ potential evaluations of these responses. We dedicate the most attention to the third category because it is the most frequently ignored in assessment research and the most in need of theoretical development based on analysis of empirical data. The results have broad implications for the valid and equitable assessment of nonmainstream children in school science and other subject areas.



The six participating schools were chosen in part for the linguistic and cultural variability of their respective student bodies. Two of the six schools served predominantly Hispanic students (92% and 87% respectively); one of these had many students who were newly arrived or first-generation immigrants (47% LEP3) from low-socioeconomic-status (SES) homes (85% receiving free or reduced lunch), whereas at the other, most students were U.S. born (only 19% LEP) and from low- to middle-SES homes (44% free or reduced lunch). Two other schools had large numbers of Haitian American (41% and 37%, respectively) and African American students (28% and 53%). In both of these schools, many students were LEP (46% and 26%), and most were from low-SES homes (95% and 99% free or reduced lunch). Most of the students at the two remaining schools were native English speakers (10% and 1% LEP) of White, Hispanic, or African American descent and were from middle-SES homes (19% and 16% free or reduced lunch).

In all 52 third- and fourth-grade classrooms in the six participating schools, the project introduced an inquiry-based science curriculum consisting of two instructional units per grade level (Measurement and Matter for third grade, and the Water Cycle and Weather for fourth grade). The units are organized around various hands-on activities designed to promote children’s participation in science inquiry while also developing their English proficiency and literacy skills. The project’s aim is to make science accessible to all children, including those with limited English proficiency, by opening avenues to science learning that are less heavily dependent on mastery of English. At the same time, children from cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds that do not emphasize, or have historically been marginalized from, scientific inquiry as practiced in scientific communities have an opportunity to become familiar with inquiry; they gradually progress from a greater dependence on teacher guidance toward greater student initiative and responsibility (Duran, Dugan, & Weffer, 1998; Fradd & Lee, 1999; Moje et al., 2001; Songer, Lee, & McDonald, 2003). The project’s treatment of science, children’s home language and culture, and development of English proficiency has been detailed elsewhere (Hart & Lee, 2003; Lee, Hart, Cuevas, & Enders, 2004; Luykx, Cuevas, Lambert, & Lee, 2004).

Participating teachers received all necessary supplies, student booklets, and teachers’ guides for carrying out the lessons. They attended four full-day professional development workshops over the course of the school year, focusing on teaching inquiry-based science, incorporating English language and literacy development into science instruction, and mediating science instruction with elements of students’ home languages and cultures.


Within the larger project, written tests were developed for each science unit to measure students’ mastery of key science concepts and “big ideas,” such as patterns, systems, models, and relationships (Lee, Deaktor, Hart, Cuevas, & Enders, 2005). The tests also measured students’ ability to conduct science inquiry, using (1) relatively structured inquiry tasks (similar to 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] performance tasks) in which students construct graphs and tables from the data provided, give an explanation for the data, and draw a conclusion; and (2) relatively open-ended inquiry tasks in which students generate hypotheses, design investigations, and plan procedures. Each test included both short-answer items and items requiring longer, constructed responses in which students were asked to explain scientific phenomena or their own reasoning.

Data sources for the present study included student responses from a total of approximately 6,000 tests (two pretests and two posttests administered to over 1,500 third- and fourth-grade students). Teachers were asked to follow standard procedures for test administration, which included reading the items aloud for children with reading difficulties and allowing ELLs to write their answers in either English or in their home language.

Qualitative analysis of cultural and home language influence in students’ written responses to test items was not contemplated in the original research design. In the process of scoring students’ responses, it was noted that some children seemed to interpret certain test items differently than the test developers had originally intended. Additionally, scorers’ difficulty in discerning the content of some children’s (particularly ELLs’) responses led to the speculation that teachers would likely have similar difficulties. Scorers also noticed differences in the ways that students framed their answers, which seemed related to their cultural backgrounds.

The coding system emerged over time, for various reasons. First, as mentioned before, this sort of analysis was not originally contemplated in the research. Informal coding and analysis began without clearly defined categories or research questions as project personnel noted and discussed interesting test responses that appeared to be related to students’ cultural or linguistic backgrounds. Second, the research team was reluctant to organize the growing data set into well-defined categories until such categories emerged from the collected examples themselves. Third, the large quantity of student tests to be examined required the participation of several members of the research team, most of whom lacked experience with cross-cultural or discourse analysis. This resulted in frequent uncertainty among team members as to what constituted relevant data. Thus, the analytic categories emerged over time as team members arrived at a more precise understanding of what we were seeking.

Over the course of this process, it became clear that coders’ ability to detect linguistic and cultural influences in test responses was closely linked not only to their specific academic/professional training but also to their experience in negotiating different languages and cultures within their own lives. In the end, student responses were coded by five team members whose combined expertise included student assessment, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), cultural and linguistic anthropology, and Latin American studies. All but one were bilingual (either English-Spanish or Creole-English) and had extensive experience “crossing borders” between different countries and cultural-linguistic groups.

As more examples of cultural and home language influence came to light, team members began to carry out a more systematic and thorough analysis of all student tests. Examples were recorded in four categories: (1) use of code-switching or languages other than English; (2) phonological, orthographic, and semantic interference from ELLs’ home language; (3) content exhibiting influence from students’ home culture, whether by explicit reference to their home life or by implicit assumptions that contrasted with those of the test developers; and (4) discursive features related to authorial voice, genre, or pragmatic framing of responses. The first category was eventually discarded because those responses were not particularly problematic in assessing students’ performance and were less relevant to the issues of interpretation (both students’ interpretation of the test questions and teachers’/coders’ interpretation of students’ responses) that eventually became the focus of the study.

As the different categories and subcategories took shape, major patterns specific to particular cultural and linguistic groups were identified. These patterns are described and illustrated below. No statistical analysis was conducted because, although the total number of responses indicating cultural or home language influence was considerable, it was quite small relative to the entire data set (all responses on 6,000 student tests). In addition, many responses were ambiguous or incomprehensible, which made precise categorization difficult. Greater insight into students’ interpretations of test items might well have been gained by interviewing individual children about their answers to specific items, but this was not feasible within the context of the study. Therefore, all our interpretations were based on textual analysis of students’ written responses, supplemented by teachers’ comments during professional development workshops (at which some of the preliminary data were presented).


Below, examples of linguistic, cultural, and languacultural influences in students’ responses are presented and analyzed. Additionally, test items themselves are analyzed for the ways in which they rely on tacit knowledge that may not be equally shared by all students. For each category, examples were chosen on the basis of how frequently they appeared or how well they highlighted the complexities of interpretation suggested by the data set as a whole.


For children from non-English-language backgrounds, home language influences, combined with limited English proficiency, may interfere with their ability to correctly interpret test items and respond in ways that are comprehensible to teachers. For example, ELLs may write their responses in English but with spellings that reflect the phonological structures or orthographic conventions of the home language. If teachers are unable to see through such interference to students’ intended meanings, limited English proficiency may be mistaken for lack of science content knowledge. Semantic differences between cognate terms in different languages are another source of difficulty, as is the fact that many terms have more commonly used general meanings and specialized scientific meanings. This latter factor can lead to confusion among native English speakers and ELLs. The examples analyzed below are divided between those that reflect phonological or orthographic interference from the home language, and those that indicate semantic confusion stemming either from cross-linguistic associations or from the polysemic nature of the science terms in question.


Teachers participating in the study were instructed to allow ELLs to respond in their home language if they so desired. Some children did write answers partially or completely in Spanish, and a very few included elements of Haitian Creole. Most responses by ELLs were in English but with spellings reflecting the phonology or orthography of the home language. When students’ spellings differ widely from the standard English ones, teachers may have difficulty comprehending their responses and, consequently, assessing students’ level of content knowledge. This holds especially, but not exclusively, for teachers who lack knowledge of students’ home language or who are unfamiliar with the phonetic values that particular letters represent in Spanish or Creole. Some children’s responses, like the following ones concerning a wind simulation demonstration, show a partial grasp of content knowledge that would likely go unrecognized by teachers without the time or expertise to see through the home language influence (in this case, from Spanish):

 “…the waro gos to the nodo baro.” [the water goes to the other bottle]

“Meibi the to spribrment the to or abaut eor.” [Maybe the two experiments the two are about air.]


Students frequently interpreted science terms with reference to their everyday meanings rather than their specialized scientific meanings. For example, they consistently had difficulty with the question, “How would you record your information?” and offered responses such as “with a tape recorder” or “using a radio.” This tendency was not limited to ELLs and is probably common among children unfamiliar with science content, procedures, and discourse. Correspondingly, it decreased as the children increased their mastery of scientific terminology. Other examples included students confusing gas (state of matter) with gasoline, scientific instruments with musical instruments, and states of matter with geopolitical states.

Although these examples are attributable to the polysemic nature of much scientific terminology and thus occur even among monolingual English speakers, other examples demonstrated clear links to students’ home language. To a question about how long one can play outside if it is now 4:00 p.m. and one has to be home for dinner by 6:00 p.m., some Haitian students indicated puzzlement over the idea of eating dinner at that hour. Mahotiere, who joined the research team in the third year of the project, later explained that in Haiti, the cognate term for “dinner” (díne) refers to the meal eaten at midday, as indeed the word dinner does in some regions of the United States. The common use, in some Spanish-speaking countries, of the word gaseosa (“gaseous”) to refer to soft drinks (a liquid) was another source of confusion. Also common among Spanish-speaking children was confusion of the abbreviations F (Fahrenheit) and C (Celsius) with the Spanish abbreviations for frío (cold) and caliente (hot); in addition to using the same letters, both sets of abbreviations give information about temperature. (A few Haitian children made the same error, because the abbreviations for the French terms, used on bathroom faucets and such, are also F [froid] and C [chaud].) Furthermore, this confusion was persistent in at least one child who was reasonably fluent in English, judging from his written answer (“yes because F is cold tempeture and if you don’t [wear a sweater] you will be cold”).


Cultural influences in students’ test responses were somewhat harder to divide into clear subcategories, but a few definite themes did emerge. References to practices, norms, and beliefs characteristic of students’ home environments showed up in numerous responses and were not limited to nonmainstream children. Additionally, some examples pointed to implicit cultural assumptions that were evidently not shared between the children and the test developers. As many of the analyzed examples show, SES is a major factor shaping children’s cultural expectations and interpretive frameworks.

The most obvious cultural influences in students’ responses were those directly linked to the propositional content of the test items. Some children, when faced with test items for which they apparently lacked the necessary science knowledge, referred instead to cultural beliefs or experiences from their home environments. For example, in response to a question about where condensed water droplets came from, one low-SES child answered, “A leak in the roof.” In response to the question, “Where did the [evaporated] water go?” another low-SES child wrote, “Someone stole it.” Other children responded to questions about the weather with “God makes it rain” or “God makes the wind.” The theme of deference to adults’ expectations appeared in several responses from Haitian students. For example, the aforementioned question concerning elapsed time evoked responses such as “I’m a good girl” or “I’ll do my homework before I go outside.” A few students offered written apologies, such as “I’m sorry I don’t know the answer.”

Although examples like these clearly demonstrate the influence of children’s cultural backgrounds on their interpretation and expression of science content, they do not appear to be closely linked to particular linguistic structures. In contrast, the next section illustrates how languacultural conventions around discursive genres, visual organization of content, and pragmatic framing can give rise to unintended interpretations of test questions, and responses that locate children in particular cultural relationships vis-à-vis content knowledge and/or a hypothetical audience.


The previous discussion of linguistic and cultural influences dealt mainly with misinterpretations of propositional content, whether of test items (as misinterpreted by students) or of students’ responses (as misinterpreted by teachers/scorers). In this section, we discuss students’ apparent confusion around discursive conventions for the interpretation and production of scientific texts. These languacultural examples include such phenomena as confusion over academic genres, textual and graphic conventions around the visual organization of content, and culturally specific ways of framing responses. In test items, as in everyday verbal interaction, significant information is often not explicitly expressed, under the oft-mistaken assumption that all children will interpret a chunk of discourse according to the same cultural frame.

Genre Confusion

Some children responded to the tests’ problem scenarios as if they were stories rather than narrative vehicles for science questions. For example, when children were asked to draw a conclusion about an inquiry activity concerning evaporation and heat (undertaken by a hypothetical child named Laura), many interpreted the term conclusion in a more literary sense, giving responses like “Now Laura knows all about heat and evaporation,” or “Laura is trying to get the science project done so she can get an A.” Such responses may reflect that in third and fourth grade, language arts terms, some of which have alternative meanings in the context of science instruction, are introduced with some emphasis.

Other responses revealed students’ difficulty in abstracting the relevant question from the surrounding scenario (i.e., isolating the science content from those elements meant only as narrative vehicles for that content). For example, one item presented students with a scenario in which a girl, Marie, must choose the better container in which to leave her pet fish while she travels on vacation. The item explained that water will evaporate from the container while Marie is gone and that the rate of evaporation is related to the width of the container. Some children, rather than focusing on the question of how fast water would evaporate from each container, focused instead on the plight of the fish, suggesting, for example, that “They could solf [sic] the problem by putting the two fish together.” This represents another kind of genre confusion; children familiar with this type of test item know that interpreting and responding correctly requires one to identify the science question one is supposed to answer, and then isolate the relevant information from the surrounding text. In contrast, in the “story” genre, which is so prevalent in early elementary education, inquiring or speculating about narrative elements is often appropriate and even encouraged by teachers.

Other children interpreted test items based on real-world scenarios in terms of the social expectations around the scenario rather than the implied science question. For example, regarding the question about elapsed time (which posits that the student must be home by 6:00 p.m.), some wrote responses like, “I have to be home by 3:00.” Similarly, another question read, “You hear the weatherman say it is 93° Fahrenheit this afternoon. Do you think you will need a sweater if you go outside to play? Explain your answer.” Although the “correct” answer would be “No, because 93° Fahrenheit is hot,” some Hispanic children responded in more pragmatic terms, indicating that a sweater would in fact be necessary “because it might get cold,” “it might rain,” “you need to find out” (suggesting that weather forecasts are not always accurate), or “Yes, because you always take a sweater when you go outside” (suggesting that parents’ admonitions take priority over actual weather conditions). These children apparently failed to recognize that, despite what the test items actually said, they were not asking what time students had to be home or whether they should take a sweater to play outside. Identifying the “real” question underlying the literal one is a form of communicative competence linked to children’s familiarity with this particular textual genre. The conventions and expectations around linguistic genres often constitute tacit cultural information that is not explicitly taught in the classroom.4

Textual Conventions

Numerous responses reflected students’ lack of familiarity with the textual conventions of assessment items. Consider the following items, which were accompanied by a weather map showing high and low temperatures for several U.S. cities:

Locate the city of New York on the map.

5. a. What is the high temperature?

b. What is the low temperature?

To the experienced test taker, it is clear that questions a and b are subelements of the question set 5 and that both refer to New York. However, some children answered “92º” or “62º,” which were the highest and lowest temperatures for the entire map, and did not refer to New York. Several others answered “Miami” for 5a and “Minneapolis” for 5b, because these were the cities displaying the highest and lowest temperatures, respectively. What these children did (i.e., compare temperatures among all the cities on the map) was actually more difficult than what they were supposed to do (i.e., simply note the temperatures in New York). Evidently, they did not grasp the hierarchical relationships among the three sentences, instead reading each as a standalone item that referred to the map but not to surrounding sentences.

Answering this type of question requires a fairly subtle knowledge of how both scientific information and school science tests are conventionally organized and how the contextual boundaries for interpreting test items are signaled visually. To correctly interpret the items, children must realize that (1) hierarchical number/letter systems (e.g., 5a, 5b) and indentation of lower level elements are used to organize test items into semantically related sets; (2) words in boldface preceding a numbered set are not test items but instructions for answering the items to follow; and (3) the instructions determine the contextual boundaries within which the items in the associated set are to be interpreted (i.e., the two questions about temperature refer only to New York, not to the map as a whole).

When the prior knowledge that is needed to correctly interpret the items is explicitly stated in this way, it becomes clear that children are being asked to do much more than simply locate cities on the map and write down the readings for each city. Genre-specific conventions for the visual organization of information are seldom explained in tests themselves, nor are they usually explained by teachers; rather, children are expected to learn them implicitly through repeated exposure to texts that make use of them. This is a subtle task, especially for children for whom basic literacy still constitutes a challenge, and such children tend to be disproportionately from nonmainstream backgrounds. To complicate things further, textual conventions (e.g., use of bold text, hierarchical grouping of related questions, use of interrogative forms) are sometimes used inconsistently both within and across tests.

Pragmatic framing/authorial voice

The assessment instruments in question also followed implicit discourse conventions requiring students to “decode” items’ intended, academic meanings rather than their literal meanings. In linguistic terms, students needed to recognize the pragmatic framework within which items were to be interpreted rather than simply taking words at face value. For example, the aforementioned question on elapsed time stated, “Your parents tell you to be home at 6:00 p.m. for dinner. It is 4:00 p.m. How much time do you have to get home for dinner?” Most students had little trouble deducing that the answer was “2 hours” but were stymied by the follow-up question, “Show your work.” Many students simply left the item blank, and others drew pictures of dinner tables or of themselves playing outside while a parental figure stood expectantly in the doorway of a house. A likely reason for this is that the problem does not really require any “work,” but rather a mental calculation so simple as to be intuitive, even for third graders. What the follow-up question is really asking is for the student to translate the concrete (albeit hypothetical) scenario into an abstract mathematical operation (i.e., 4 + ? = 6); however, the instruction “Show your work” does not communicate this clearly unless one is familiar with the conventions of this sort of test item.5

Other languacultural phenomena include students’ use of discourse markers or framing devices, indicated below in bold type, to position themselves in a particular relationship to the reader or to the content in question. Note the contrasts with regard to students’ “authorial voice” among these responses to the question, “Now help Laura write her conclusion about evaporation and heat.”

“The Water evpreit and that ho it is.” [The water evaporates and that’s how it is.]

“Well, you see, the water evaporated with the hotness.”

“So, in conclusion, heat attracts water up slowly.”

The first response suggests an attitude of impatience with the test (or science inquiry?) itself—water just evaporates, and questions of why or how it does so are irrelevant. The second response, by invoking a hypothetical interlocutor (“you”), positions the student as confidently explaining the phenomenon in question but in a conversational tone. The third response evokes a more formal verbal register and also dovetails with the inquiry framework in which the lessons were presented (problem, hypothesis, procedures, data collection and analysis, conclusion).

A few other children (monolingual English speakers from middle-SES backgrounds) also prefaced their responses with discourse markers that seemed to reflect a certain authorial confidence (e.g., “hello” or “of course”). Although these examples were too infrequent to suggest any particular distribution across different groups of students, they do suggest relationships between author and reader (sociability, shared knowledge of the content to follow) that can clearly be considered languacultural. Such issues of voice in written test responses are unlikely to substantially affect teachers’ assessment of children’s science knowledge6 but do reveal differing levels of mastery of academic discourse conventions, and ways in which different students position themselves with regard to both science knowledge and testing situations.



By illustrating how children’s home language, cultural knowledge, and discourse conventions influence their performance on science assessments, this study has demonstrated some of the challenges involved in designing valid and equitable assessments for students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Relative to the entire data set, only a small number of test responses indicated that students were led astray by cross-linguistic associations, underlying cultural assumptions, contextual or visual clues, or the embedding of test items in real-life scenarios. Furthermore, such responses were more common on pretests than on posttests. As children’s science knowledge and English proficiency increased, and as they became acculturated into academic/scientific genres and discourse conventions, they learned to focus more narrowly on the science content of test items, and the frequency of linguistic, cultural, and languacultural interference decreased. Nevertheless, the existence of such examples led to several important observations about assessment of linguistically and culturally diverse students.

First, when the language of assessment is one that students have yet to master, limited proficiency in that language can masquerade as limited content knowledge. Second, scientific terms have connotations and points of contact with everyday vocabulary that vary significantly from one language to another. Third, when dealing with a culturally heterogeneous group of children, cultural “grounding” of test items, whether purposeful or inadvertent, may contextualize those items for some children while decontextualizing them for others. Finally, academic assessments inevitably contain a considerable amount of implicit languacultural knowledge, which different groups of children may not share. Indeed, our own elaboration of test items was both more culturally embedded and more deeply influenced by the conventions of academic English than we had realized.

For students who are assessed in a language they have not yet mastered, there is no easy solution to the problem of valid and equitable assessment. The science concepts, discursive genres, and assessment practices common to U.S. schools are inextricably tied to the use of standard American English. Thus, until students have mastered that language—which generally takes quite a bit longer than the 1–2 years of ESOL instruction they receive—English-medium assessments cannot be assumed to provide an accurate picture of their science knowledge. On the other hand, assessing students in the home language raises problems of validity, resources, and compatibility with the language of instruction (Solano-Flores & Trumbull, 2003). With the spread of “English-only” legislation that prioritizes children’s acquisition of English over their subject-area knowledge, possible solutions to this dilemma are further constrained (Abedi, 2004; Abedi et al., 2004; Gutiérrez et al., 2002).

Languacultural influences were evident not only in students’ responses to test items but also in the items themselves. Test items were constructed to represent key concepts and inquiry practices from the instructional units and were presented in the context of real-life situations in the hope of enhancing meaning and relevance for students (García & Pearson, 1994; Ruiz-Primo & Shavelson, 1996). However, the embedding of specific cultural knowledge in test items led some children to interpret the items differently than expected. The analyzed examples demonstrate that assessment instruments themselves are imbued with tacit cultural knowledge at nearly every stage of their construction. Such knowledge includes the implicit visual clues indicating relationships between textual elements (e.g., the weather map questions), genre-specific meanings of particular terms (e.g., conclusion), social expectations associated with particular situations (e.g., whether one should take a sweater when going outside to play), and conventionalized, rather than literal, understandings of phrases (e.g., “Show your work”). Tacit cultural knowledge also aids students in distinguishing relevant scientific information from “background” information, as they are required to do in scenario-type problems.

In short, cultural and home language influences are not simply “baggage” that nonmainstream children bring to the classroom, to the possible detriment of their academic performance. Rather, they are part and parcel of instructional and assessment practices; indeed, they are integral to virtually every aspect of the pedagogical encounter, though largely unconscious for the actors involved. It is only when the cultural assumptions, linguistic associations, and discursive conventions that educators take for granted contrast with those held by students that they become visible.

The results of this study suggest that the goal of designing culturally neutral assessments is unrealistic. Test developers are faced with a multitude of decisions concerning formatting, wording, visual cues, and textual organization. Many of these decisions are made unconsciously, and each involves the incorporation of culture-specific knowledge that is often crucial to the correct interpretation of test items. Although obvious cultural bias should be avoided, test developers cannot be expected to identify and purge all culture-specific elements from assessment instruments. Such a task is impossible, given the inherently cultural nature of such instruments and the amount of cultural knowledge that operates below the level of conscious awareness. Adopting an ideal of culturally neutral assessments also runs counter to the current emphasis on making instruction and assessment meaningful and relevant to students, because “meaning” and “relevance” are culturally determined and inevitably refer to cultural knowledge.

On the other hand, the results of the study also cast doubt on the aim of creating “culturally relevant” assessments that contextualize science problems in real-life scenarios (cf. Solano-Flores & Nelson-Barber, 2001). Clearly, what constitutes a real-life scenario for some children may be far removed from the life experience of others. For this reason, some researchers have suggested that academic assessments should emphasize content and procedures taught within the classroom rather than attempting to make links to experiences outside the classroom (Hamilton, 1998; Shavelson, Baxter, & Pine, 1992). However, that proposal rests on the assumption that all children have equal access to quality classroom instruction, which is often not the case (Eder, 1982/2000; Kozol, 1991; Noguera, 2003; Oakes, 1988; Wiley & Wright, 2004).

The cultural, linguistic, and languacultural influences evident both in test items and in students’ responses reveal how scientific information is inevitably embedded within particular interpretive frameworks. The examples analyzed in this study indicate some of the discrepancies between the frameworks of educators (teachers, researchers, and test developers) and those of children from minority or immigrant communities. These discrepancies are a result of the different “funds of knowledge” (Moll, 1992) that each group brings to the scientific task at hand. In some cases, children’s own funds of knowledge may lead them away from, rather than toward, the intended interpretations of test items.


The issues discussed herein have direct implications for instruction and assessment, because they may distort teachers’ perceptions of students’ level of content knowledge (usually downward, but conceivably upward as well). This highlights the need for teachers to be attentive to potential cultural bias in curriculum materials and assessment instruments, common linguistic confusion around specific science terms, and the relative independence of students’ content knowledge from their level of English proficiency (Shaw, 1997; Shepard et al., 1998; Solano-Flores & Nelson-Barber, 2001; Solano-Flores & Trumbull, 2003).

Despite the very real obstacles to providing valid and equitable assessment for ELLs, there are steps that teachers can take to minimize the problem. Even teachers who do not speak the home language(s) of their students can learn to spot home language interference in children’s writing and to be alert to the cross-linguistic confusions that may impede ELLs from grasping science concepts or clearly expressing what they know. Indeed, greater awareness of such factors—and more time to attend to them—is often lacking among teachers who do speak their students’ home language. It should never be assumed that children’s content knowledge or academic ability is in direct relation to their English proficiency, although an increasing number of U.S. schools tend to operate under this assumption.

Beyond the more obvious instances of cultural bias and linguistic interference, several of the analyzed examples illustrate the more subtle kinds of languacultural knowledge regularly embedded in test items. Although such knowledge is outside the bounds of the science content considered to be the focus of instruction, it is no less crucial to children’s successful academic performance. Therefore, it is important that teachers become aware of the discursive, textual, and graphic conventions that guide the construction of assessment instruments, and take steps to assure that all students understand these conventions. When this is not done, assessments cannot be assumed to accurately reflect the knowledge or abilities of all students.

The data suggest that probing students’ misinterpretations of test items could provide a basis for teaching the cultural, discursive, and graphic conventions that assessment instruments require them to know. For example, if teachers were to explore with students how one discerns the relationships among textual elements (like those referring to the weather map), teachers themselves might come to recognize that the ability to interpret test items correctly is based on culturally specific graphic conventions and textual markers rather than on a transparent universal logic or visual intuition.7 This is not to suggest that most teachers are unaware of such conventions. Significantly, the examples in question came from the pretest, before children had been taught the graphic conventions for interpreting weather maps.

Careful analysis of children’s written work can provide a window on their lives outside of school and on the relationship between what they know and what teachers want them to know. Teachers must become aware of this relationship if they are to address the continuities and discontinuities between children’s prior cultural knowledge and school science (Lee, 2002, 2003; Solano-Flores & Nelson-Barber, 2001). Recognition of the ways in which linguistic, cultural, and languacultural factors shape the science knowledge not only of students but also of teachers, scientists, curriculum specialists, and test developers may also contribute to increased recognition of the cultural and linguistic resources that children from diverse backgrounds bring to the science classroom.


Much of the existing knowledge base concerning achievement gaps among different demographic groups—whether racial/ethnic, linguistic, or socioeconomic—is derived from large-scale research studies that depend on standardized assessment of students’ content knowledge in subject areas. Inasmuch as large-scale studies, by their nature, involve more heterogeneous populations, the question of what approach is most likely to ensure valid and equitable assessment represents a fundamental dilemma for researchers aiming to combine large-scale student assessment with a concern for cultural and linguistic diversity.

In this article, we have addressed two contrasting approaches to the search for more valid and equitable assessment of culturally diverse student groups—that which seeks to minimize the cultural content of assessment instruments in order to make them as “culturally neutral” as possible and that which seeks to make assessments more culturally relevant to students. Although both approaches have significant limitations, systematic and comparative study of the two could yield important insights into how to make academic assessments more equitable and more valid. A prerequisite for such study is more fine-grained analysis of the tacit knowledge that is commonly embedded in science assessments and of the ways in which different groups of students interpret scientific concepts, terminology, and texts. Existing and ongoing work that is relevant to these questions includes research on the epistemologies of scientific communities (Eisenhart, 1996; Traweek, 1988) and cultural groups that have traditionally been marginalized from science (Cobern & Loving, 2001; Siegel, 2002; Snively & Corsiglia, 2001; Stanley & Brickhouse, 1994, 2001). Also relevant are studies of how the discursive and textual conventions characteristic of particular written genres affect readers’ interpretations and how these interpretations differ among different kinds of readers (Boyarin, 1992; Street, 1993).

To dig deeper into the factors contributing to achievement gaps among different student groups, large-scale studies are essential. At the same time, uncovering the cultural and linguistic frameworks influencing students’ academic performance requires deep qualitative analyses that are difficult or impossible to carry out with large numbers of children. Given the fragmentation and hyperspecialization of educational scholarship, the many kinds of disciplinary expertise needed to untangle these questions are seldom found within a single researcher or even team of researchers. Research that gets to the heart of these questions requires the collaboration of scholars who too seldom communicate across their disciplinary boundaries: science educators, assessment specialists, linguists, anthropologists, discourse analysts, statisticians, and perhaps others as well. Combining such a disparate collection of disciplines and research methodologies is a formidable task; this very fact has, no doubt, contributed to the persistence of assessment inequities. Much basic work remains to be done on how different groups conceive and organize scientific knowledge and how students’ knowledge relates to their academic performance. It is hoped that the community of scholars taking an interest in these matters will eventually prove as diverse as the children demanding their attention.

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Institute of Health (Grant No. REC-0089231). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position, policy, or endorsement of the funding agencies.


1 This persistent assumption has been challenged from a variety of perspectives, including multiculturalist (Atwater, 1993, 1996; Brickhouse, 1994; Hodson, 1993; Rodríguez, 1997), sociocultural (Lemke, 2001; O’Loughlin, 1992), indigenous (Aikenhead, 2001; Ogawa, 1995; Snively & Corsiglia, 2001), feminist (Haraway, 1990, 1991; Keller, 1982), and postmodernist (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982; Norman, 1998; Rouse, 1996; Spivak, 1993), and views emerging from critical theory (Calabrese Barton, 2001; Tobin, Seiler, & Smith, 1999) and concerns for civil rights and social justice (Tate, 2001).

2 A telling exception was the “Ebonics” controversy that occurred in California in the late 1990s. The relationship between standard English and the dialect spoken by many African American students, and the best ways to deal with nonstandard dialects in the classroom, are persistent problems in U.S. education (see Ogbu, 1999; Perry & Delpit, 1998).

3 Limited English proficient; this is the designation used by the school district.

4 Children’s tendency to mentally put themselves into the scenario and respond as they actually would in that situation rather than tease out the hypothetical science question was not limited to nonmainstream students. Several monolingual English speakers from middle-SES backgrounds responded to a question on how they would record scientific information with, “I’d ask Jeeves,” “look it up on the Internet,” or “go on the computer.” It is also possible that such responses represent a fallback strategy when children lack the content knowledge to answer the question but feel pressured to respond anyway.

5 Similarly, on other items that asked the student to “show your work,” some African American children responded with “I know ‘cause I know” or “I know it’s right.”

6 However, mastery of the corresponding oral conventions may influence teachers’ perceptions of students’ knowledge to a much greater degree (Cazden, 2001; Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981; Philips, 1983). A case in point was an oral presentation by a group of fourth graders at a high-performing school serving mostly children of professionals. After one girl read a fairly complex passage about the science topic under study, which she had downloaded from the Internet but did not seem to fully understand, a boy in the group followed up with, “To put that in plain English. . . ” and then proceeded to informally paraphrase what the girl had read. His confident use of this rather grown-up expression to frame his contribution seemed to make a positive impression on his audience (including the teacher) even though his paraphrase did not in fact accurately reflect the content presented by his teammate.

7 Our thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 4, 2007, p. 897-926
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  • Aurolyn Luykx
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    AUROLYN LUYKX is joint associate professor of Anthropology and Teacher Education at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests include critical pedagogy, bilingual and intercultural education, language policy and planning, and indigenous education in the United States and Latin America. Among her other publications are “Measuring Instructional Congruence in Elementary Science Classrooms: Pedagogical and Methodological Components of a Theoretical Framework,” with Okhee Lee (Journal of Research in Science Teaching 44(3), 2007), and “Unpacking Teachers’ ‘Resistance’ to Integrating Students’ Language and Culture Into Elementary Science Instruction,” with Okhee Lee, in Preparing Mathematics and Science Teachers for Diverse Classrooms: Promising Strategies for Transformative Pedagogy, edited by A. Rodríguez & R. S. Kitchen (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).
  • Okhee Lee
    University of Miami
    OKHEE LEE is a professor in the School of Education, University of Miami. Her research areas include elementary science education, language and culture, and teacher education. She was awarded a 1993-95 National Academy of Education Spencer Post-doctoral Fellowship. She received the Distinguished Career Award from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Standing Committee for Scholars of Color in Education in 2003. She serves on editorial boards for major education research journals as well as advisory boards for science education reform projects.
  • Margarette Mahotiere
    University of Miami
    MARGARETTE MAHOTIERE is a Senior Research Associate in the School of Education at the University of Miami. Previously she was a teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages. She is currently working on a research project funded by the National Science Foundation on improving science education for English language learners. Her research interests include language acquisition among English language learners and the intersection of language, culture, and science learning.
  • Benjamin Lester
    University of Miami
    BENJAMIN T. LESTER is a middle grades ESOL teacher in the Cherokee County School District in Canton, Georgia and a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. His research focuses on the empowerment, agency, and academic success of language minority students through classroom based instructional practices.
  • Juliet Hart
    College of William and Mary
    JULIET HART is a former teacher of students with emotional/behavioral disorders; she earned her doctorate degree in Special Education and TESOL at the University of Miami in 2003. Since that time she has been an Assistant Professor of Special Education at the College of William and Mary, and currently is a visiting assistant professor in Special Education at the University of Kansas. Her primary research interests include language, literacy, and multicultural issues in special education, child psychopathology, and classroom adaptations/strategies for students with disabilities in inclusive settings. She has several published and forthcoming articles on special education and diversity topics in the journals Intervention in School and Clinic, Remedial and Special Education, and the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.
  • Rachael Deaktor

    RACHAEL DEAKTOR formerly held the position of Senior Research Associate in the School of Education at the University of Miami. In this capacity, she contributed to research projects in the areas of elementary science education, language and culture, and program evaluation. Her other publications include "An instructional intervention's impact on the science and literacy achievement of culturally and linguistically diverse students" with Okhee Lee, et al. and "Improving science inquiry: Lessons learned from children of diverse backgrounds" with Peggy Cuevas, et al., both in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Ms. Deaktor currently works for a Boston-based educational publishing company.
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