Jennifer Randall is a fan of the psychometric field, a quantitative field of education that uses multiple-choice tests to measure IQ and student achievement. One of the few black scholars in the field, she argues that standardized assessments are in themselves racist. It is developing new types of “anti-racist” tests, calling for reparations. Due to SAT testing and failure of colleges, Randall’s star is rising. She launched the Center for Measuring Justice in early 2022. She advises Curriculum Associates, one of the largest appraisal companies in the country. And in the fall of 2022, she plans to join the University of Michigan with the department. Randall is currently an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
I spoke with Randall during the annual meeting of the American Association for Educational Research in San Diego, where the National Board of Measurement in Education also met in April 2022. The interview was compressed and edited for clarity.
Barsha: How are the tests racist?
Randall: I think most test subjects are white-centered. Subject developers [the test question writers]when they draw a child, that child is not like me. This is because most of the authors of the articles are white people. Non-white writers grew up in the same colonial schools as their white counterparts. They figured out how to design items that do this through a review of bias and sensitivity. And they tend to target whites.
When I talk about the hegemony of white supremacy, default whiteness; this is ok. People don’t consider it white-centric; they just find it neutral.
I will give you an example with several options that I have written. It’s a picture of a family sitting down to dinner, a rather Eurocentric, ordinary American food. There is a clock at the top. And the question is, how much to dine? This point on his face seems completely neutral: the family is sitting down to dinner, we ask about time. But that involves a lot of things targeting whites. It is assumed that families sit down to dinner all together any evening at the same time. And on the table is just a lot of food. For many children, this is not their experience. Perhaps their parents work until the evening. One works the night shift; one works a day shift. Dinner doesn’t always happen at the same time. These types of items are geared towards whites, people don’t even know it.
If one or two points on the grade are such, black and brown students will be fine. I want to say that if that’s all you see when evaluating, I feel like it’s becoming inhuman.
You said you wanted to improve the tests and make them “anti-racist.” How can tests really promote social justice?
We need to create items that provide a complete historical context, not just uplift and protect whites. I used to teach social studies, and Thomas Jefferson was in every grade. Everyone mentioned that he wrote the Declaration of Independence and that he was a man of genius. Estimates did not indicate that he owned slaves, raped a 14-year-old girl and had children with this woman.
Tests should show injustice. Why can’t we have verbal math problems that do something other than count stones or ice cream? These are just sad things that no child – white, black, Jew, pagan – wants to take. They are tiring. I work with my students to come up with assessment points that address socio-political issues. Why can’t we have an article about students preparing food for the Black Lives Matters protests and they are protesting that they are keeping asylum seekers on the border? Or about different dress codes for middle school students?
Representation is a huge part of that. Students should see black and brown leaders from their communities in their grades.
Testing is blamed for narrowing what is taught in schools, and for labeling low-income children as unskilled, inadequate, or unsuccessful. You talked about the assessment of reparations. What are they?
Large appraisal companies have made a lot of money by harming black, brown and indigenous students, whether they want to admit it or not. ETS [Educational Testing Service] must sacrifice to compensate for all the damage they have done. When I say ETS, I mean each of them: ACT, Curriculum Associates, NWEA, Pearson. They all need to do work to eliminate some of that damage. They are not going. But I will keep telling them what they should.
How did your colleagues perceive your ideas on measuring education?
When I talk about creating an assessment that will be culturally relevant or culturally sustainable for colored students, colleagues say we need to be careful not to break the rigor. I say maybe we need to reconsider what we’re testing. It was met with dead silence. One could hear a bunch of mice. (I’m from Alabama. I can say that.)
People are listening to me right now because of what is happening in society. I think if we hadn’t watched the murder of Eric Garner on TV, fewer people would have listened to me and my work wouldn’t have been published.
But the people in power are still resisting. I can read between the lines. They’re afraid to say, “Absolutely not, Jennifer Randall is crazy,” because the optics look bad. I know what they think and say behind closed doors. But I think we have enough people, a core group where we can make a difference.
Tell us about your new Justice Measurement Center.
I wasn’t looking to set up a center. I talked about how we can bring together a network of critical scholars in measuring education, those of us who are like-minded and understand that there is a problem. The problem is not in the students and parents in their communities, but in the assessments and measurements themselves.
Gabi Lopez at CZI [The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organization of Facebook’s founder] said that instead of Jennifer Randall running everywhere, let’s do our best and have a center to do all this research in one space, and strengthen and enhance work and move forward in a really coordinated and systematic way. (Chan Zuckerberg’s initiative is also one of the many sponsors of The Hechinger Report.)
We started in January 2022, but we are still in a smooth start. We create an advisory board and create a staff. We have a website and it will be located at the University of Michigan when I move there.
Why did you go into a field that is not a fan?
I didn’t start with measuring education. When I first returned to graduate school, I was studying what was the equivalent of social justice in Emara. I was quickly disappointed with the protection of white people when you point to systems of oppression and the way they deter black and brown students. I was 20 and I couldn’t handle it. Measuring education was simple. You are trying to put everyone in a straight line. At the time, I was a single mother with two children, and my life was chaotic. I needed a nice straight line.
One of your children is Gabi Thomas, a sprinter who won two medals in athletics at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. What did you learn from her about overcoming obstacles?
I actually have a couple of adult children. Drew, Gabi’s twin brother, is an artist. He developed logo for the Center for Measuring Justice. Both of my children have taught me that one can be committed to justice through any work. Gabi uses her platform as an athlete to speak out health imbalances (she also earns a master’s degree in health). Drew uses his art (obtaining a master’s degree in fine arts) to provoke institutional racism. Each uses their individual talents to fight the most marginalized communities for justice.
This story is about anti-racist tests written by Jill Barshey and produced Hechinger’s report, a non-profit independent information organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to Hechinger Newsletter.