Educational Assessment as a Locus for Social Justice

Toward anti-racist approaches in assessment

Educational Assessment as a Locus for Social Justice

Associate Professor Jennifer Randall is moving education toward culturally sustaining and explicitly anti-racist assessments.

A montage portrait of Associate Professor Jennifer Randall

A career in educational measurement wasn’t part of Associate Professor Jennifer Randall’s plan. After many years as a high school social studies teacher, she entered a doctoral program focusing on social justice education to enhance her skills as a teacher, planning to return to the classroom eventually. Instead, she discovered a fascination with the measurement side of the field, which led her in a very different direction and a career in higher education. Education measurement may have seemed like a significant departure from Randall’s original plan, but in reality, it proved to simply be an alternative route to a similar end—to pursue social justice and challenge racism in educational settings.

Over the course of her education and research in measurement, Randall became well versed in the ways that educational assessments based in whiteness perpetuate racism and put students of color at a significant disadvantage. In response, Randall began to focus on calling attention to and disrupting this entrenched pattern in how we evaluate students. “For me, it’s about moving towards explicit anti-racist assessments,” she asserts. “That’s what I intend to work on until I retire.”

Associate Professor Jennifer Randall

Randall began her teaching career in a preschool setting (eventually becoming a curriculum director), before moving to secondary education. She loved classroom teaching, and the school outside of Atlanta was an excellent fit, giving her opportunities to work with students across the educational spectrum. “I was teaching exactly what I wanted to teach, to exactly the students that I wanted to teach.”

When she began the Ph.D. program at Emory University, Randall was assigned to a teaching assistantship with an undergraduate course in educational measurement. She knew little about the specialty, and took the course at the same time as the students, trying to stay a few weeks ahead. To her surprise, she truly enjoyed it. Randall also admired the head of measurement at Emory, George Engelhard, and found the idea of working with him very appealing. By the end of her second semester she switched to psychometrics and has remained in the field ever since.

Randall has been part of the UMass College of Education’s Research, Educational Measurement, & Psychometrics (REMP) faculty since 2007 and also serves as director of evaluation for the college’s Center for Educational Assessment.

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Logo

In her research, as noted above, Randall focuses on issues of social justice in assessment. This involves, in her words, “really thinking about taking a social justice approach to the ways in which we do assessment, particularly thinking about the ways culturally sustaining and explicitly anti-racist approaches can mitigate the really negative outcomes that minoritized students feel or experience when they take large-scale and small-scale classroom assessments.” In her work, Randall advocates not only for a sea change in how and why we do assessments, but in who creates and evaluates the assessments—that is, bringing many more Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) professionals to the table.

Randall has recently received two Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) grants supporting projects to diversify the field. For the first grant, she teamed up with REMP Professor Stephen Sireci and the National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME). The intention of the project was to help more students of color interested in measurement attend the NCME national conference, which, with conference fees, travel, and hotels, is often beyond their resources. The Covid-19 pandemic upended those plans, so instead, Randall and her colleagues have provided professional development throughout the year, including writing accountability groups, mentorship on proposal writing, and seminars on pursuing careers in the industry.

Joseph Rios

For the second CZI grant, Randall is working with REMP alum Joseph Rios (pictured left), now an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, to evaluate recruitment and retention efforts for Black, Brown, and Indigenous students in measurement doctoral programs. In an initial study, they found that in the last two decades, in any given year, measurement doctoral programs have graduated, at most, 10 Hispanic students and 20 Black students, and some years far less, while the minimum numbers of Asian and white students was in the range of 44 and 73 each year, respectively.  Through interviews and surveys, Randall and Rios are asking measurement programs what recruitment and retention strategies they’ve used and what more they would like to do, and asking students what their programs have done to recruit and support them, and what other efforts they’d like to see.

In addition to her teaching and research responsibilities, Randall is completing her last semester as the college’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. During her tenure in this role, Randall spearheaded key initiatives affecting both students and faculty. She worked with the Ad Hoc Committee on Undergraduate Education to develop the non-licensure major Community Education and Social Change. The program provides opportunities to undergraduates who want to study education, but don’t plan to become public school teachers, and those who do plan to pursue classroom teaching and want a strong social justice focus. “I think it sets you up beautifully to work with the types of populations that many of our students will end up working with,” she says. “It’s by far my favorite thing that I have done in this role.”

As Associate Dean, Randall has also worked with department chairs to establish support systems for new tenure-earning faculty. During their first year, faculty have a “launch committee” consisting of their department chair, colleagues from inside and outside of their department with similar research interests, and a facilitator. In their second and third years, they have a “fly committee,” which includes colleagues who can provide support and guidance in particular skills—like teaching or proposal writing—that the new faculty member would like to hone.

Looking at the future of her field, Randall sees areas where they are moving both away from and toward a socially just approach to measurement and assessment. She’s particularly concerned about the efforts to create more technological automation of assessments in the name of efficiency, arguing that while assessment is still extremely white-centered, any move toward automation will just further solidify this bias.

As a profession, I want everything we do to always be interrogated for the presence of white supremacy, the privileging of whiteness, and the dehumanization or erasure of non-white cultures. To me, this requires we start all over from the beginning, because everything we’ve developed thus far has been white centered. And if we can do that, and then automate it, I’m fine with that. But what I don't want us to do is automate white supremacy.

Although she hasn’t yet seen any large-scale culturally sustaining or anti-racist assessment products in use, Randall is hopeful that the field is beginning to take steps in that direction. Pedagogy itself is well ahead, with teachers and school districts implementing curricula, instructional practices, and educational materials that are culturally sustaining and anti-racist, and this gives the assessment field opportunities to see anti-racist strategies enacted.

"No one has produced anything yet, but it takes time to develop an assessment system. And when you’re trying to completely disrupt an oppressive system that has been in place for hundreds of years. Well, that also takes time."

In Randall’s view, the disruptions of the past year make this an excellent time for education to radically remake assessment. With the deeper examination of racism and inequity sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Aubrey, among others, as well as the differential impact of Covid-19 on minoritized communities, a great deal has changed. We’re in a period when, on one hand, many people are paying attention to racism in a way they haven’t before, and on the other, with the temporary move to distance education, large-scale testing has been suspended throughout the country. Notions of standardization and trend data have already been upended.

It’s our opportunity to strike, and to do something powerful in assessment. For two years, we’re probably not going to have any standardized, trend-worthy data. And since trend has been broken, let’s now take the opportunity to reset, or rethink, what our assessments look like. Let’s start over with a better approach to assessment.