February 2017
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LET YOUR TEST BE CULTURALLY FAIR
Gladys Focho, University of Bamenda, Bambili, North West Region, Cameroon

Teachers often construct test items without paying attention to the sociocultural background of the students. I would like to share some experiences about test questions that are not culturally objective and the impact they could have on the student.

The first case concerns the testing of vocabulary dealing with places:

Choose the correct word from those in parenthesis to complete the sentence so that it has a logical meaning.

I always go to pray in the ________________. (school, market, church, hospital)

After giving back the scripts and doing the corrections, a student (about 15 years old) came to me to protest that he had written “mosque,” and I marked it wrong. When I told him “mosque” was not on the list, he insisted that he does not pray in a church but in a mosque. I tried to convince him of the importance of following instructions, but he insisted that he would rather fail than say something that was against his Muslim faith.

Another case was that of a similar question in a national examination:

The color of ripe bananas is_________________. (green, red, yellow)

The problem here is that in that part of the country, ripe bananas could be any of those colors. Because of the excess heat, green bananas could become tender or ripe while still green. Additionally, there exists a species of banana that is red in color and remains red even when ripe. Then there is the green banana, some of which turn yellow when ripe.

In another national examination, students were asked to explain the use of a gas cooker. A student responded that it was used to warm food in the evenings when there was no firewood to make fire. Such a student was definitely from a poor or rural area where cooking gas was a luxury and used sparingly. Evidently, she was responding to the question from her own sociocultural experience.

The point, then, is that teachers need to exercise cultural sensitivity not only in teaching but also in testing and evaluation. They need to understand the cultural backgrounds of the different students in their classes and try to avoid cultural issues leading to controversy, stereotyping, and stigmatization, or to outright conflict, emotional stress, and demotivation of students.


Gladys Focho is an English language teacher with more than 25 years of experience as a teacher of EFL and English for academic purposes (EAP). She has been a regional pedagogic inspector for the Promotion of Bilingualism in the West Region of Cameroon. She holds a doctorate in educational administration and planning and is presently an administrator in the University of Bamenda, Cameroon where she teaches courses in education and EAP. She is an executive member of the Cameroon English Language and Literature Teachers Association (CAMELTA). Her research interests include teacher development, global education, EFL, and English and development.

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