Educational Assessment as a Locus for Social Justice
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.”
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.