Six paddles with Indigenous artwork lay on a table with a black background

Ƶapp launches national initiative to decolonize English assessment

Faculty members and staff at Ƶapp are finding their work to decolonize English placement assessments for Indigenous students is sparking a national movement.

A man in a grey suit stands in front of a wooden building.

Richard Doucet, steering committee member and Indigenous community liaison, on Ƶapp's Lansdowne campus.

English Placement Counsellor, Maureen Niwa, Faculty Leader Assessment and Testing, Vivian Fayowski and Indigenous Advisor, Wendy McDonald, with a national steering committee of 15 members, have crafted a vision for an assessment process that offers potential Indigenous students an effective and standardized tool for placing people in the appropriate level of post-secondary English while reflecting Indigenous worldviews and cultures. The goal is to provide more inclusive, culturally appropriate and equitable assessments for Indigenous students.

The tool also benefits non-Indigenous students by reflecting updated K-12 Language Arts curriculum across Canada, which has increased Indigenous learning outcomes and more Indigenous-specific content.

“Assessment is the first point of contact for many Indigenous students,” says McDonald, who worked for 32 years at the W̱SÁNEĆ Adult Education Centre as part of Ƶapp’s Community Learning Partnerships.

"If we don’t get it right, there is the potential for Indigenous students to internalize the failure of being in the wrong placement, believing it’s their fault and they can’t do it. If we lose them here, it then takes them a long time to try again.

We want them to feel successful right from the get-go! It’s important to ensure it is accurate and supportive to avoid making them feel responsible for the system’s shortcomings."

~ Wendy McDonald, Indigenous Advisor

McDonald started working on the project idea five years ago when she noticed Ƶapp has specially designed assessments for different populations such as people who speak English as an additional language and students with disabilities, but nothing for prospective Indigenous students.

“When I looked at assessments from previous Indigenous students, such as an essay that received a low score but had profound wisdom, reflection and insights, I realized that we were using the wrong tool,” says Niwa, who's also an English faculty member. “The current tool is American-based, contains language that may trigger trauma, and overlooks common Indigenous cultural practices such as storytelling, community-based experiences, land-based issues and values placed on family.”

A safe space for Indigenous people to return to education

Niwa saw that the existing institutional standard didn't apply to Indigenous life experiences and work needed to be done to make assessment a culturally-sensitive tool. Niwa dedicated professional development time to fleshing out the idea and started collaborating with Fayowski and McDonald, both of whom have decades of on-the-ground and hands-on experience working within Indigenous communities and with assessment.

The team started a committee to gather input and ideas from around the college, which has now grown into a national Indigenizing English Placement Assessment (IEPA) Steering Committee. Once the steering committee develops the plan for the assessment tool, the team will work with developers to create software that will allow for a fully indigenized assessment process that integrates video and other storytelling and multi-modal technology.

Working with Indigenous ways of being 

“This project is a way to alleviate fear and create a safe space for Indigenous people who want to upgrade their skills and return to education,” says Richard Doucet, steering committee member and Indigenous Community Liaison for Ƶapp’s Centre for Indigenous Education and Community Connections.

“We need to break away from colonial structures and stay with Indigenous ways of being and knowing that include relationship, passion, honesty, friendship and trust.”

The committee continues to gain momentum as they develop the idea, with support from eight institutions in Canada. They are still welcoming new members. Niwa and McDonald will present the project at the upcoming Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) conference in Calgary, April 29 to May 1, and at the at Ƶapp, August 20 to 23.

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The Centre for Indigenous Education & Community Connections (IECC) provides educational, financial, and cultural support, information and services.

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