Jennifer Randall is a firebrand inside the staid field of psychometrics, a quantitative area 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 themselves are racist. She’s developing new types of “anti-racist” tests as she calls for assessment reparations. With testing under attack and colleges dropping the SAT, Randall’s star is on the rise. She launched the Center for Measurement Justice at the start of 2022. She is advising Curriculum Associates, one of the biggest assessment companies in the country. And she’s slated to join the University of Michigan with an endowed chair in the fall of 2022. Randall is currently an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
I spoke with Randall during the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in San Diego, where the National Council on Measurement in Education was also convening in April 2022. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Barshay: How are tests racist?
Randall: I think that most test items are white-centered. Item developers [the test question writers], if they picture a kid, that kid does not look like me. That’s because most item writers are white people. Item writers who are not white grew up in the same colonial schools as their white counterparts. They figured out how to develop items that make it through bias and sensitivity review. And those tend to be white-centered.
When I talk about the white supremacist hegemony, whiteness is the default; it’s normal. People don’t see it as white-centric; they just see it as neutral.
I’ll give you a multiple-choice example I wrote. It’s a drawing of a family sitting down to dinner, a pretty Eurocentric, regular American meal. There’s a clock at the top. And the question is, what time is dinner? That item on its face seems perfectly neutral: a family sitting down to dinner, we’re asking about the time. But it assumes a lot of things that are white-centric. It assumes that families sit down to dinner all together on any given evening at exactly the same time. And there’s just copious amounts of food laid out on the table. For many children, this is not their experience. Maybe their parents are working into 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 white-centric without people even recognizing it.
If one or two items on an assessment show up like that, Black and brown students are going to be fine. My point is that if that’s all you ever see on an assessment, I feel like it becomes dehumanizing.
You’ve said that you want improve tests and make them “anti-racist.” How can tests actually promote social justice?
We need to create items that provide for a full historical context and don’t just elevate and protect whites. I used to teach social studies and every assessment had Thomas Jefferson on it. They all mentioned that he wrote the Declaration of Independence and that he was a brilliant man. The assessments didn’t point out that he owned slaves, raped a 14-year-old girl and had children with this woman.
Tests have to call out injustice. Why can’t we have word problems in math that deal with something other than counting rocks or ice cream flavors? Those are just boring items that no kid – white, Black, Jew, Gentile – wants to take. They’re tedious. I’m working with my students to come up with assessment items that address sociopolitical issues. Why can’t we have an item that is about students preparing meals for Black Lives Matters protests, and they are protesting holding asylum seekers at the border? Or about disparate dress codes for middle schoolers?
Representation is a huge piece of it. Students need to see Black and brown leaders from their communities on their assessments.
Testing has been blamed for narrowing what schools teach and for labeling low-income children as not proficient, inadequate or failing. You’ve been talking about assessment reparations. What are they?
Large-scale assessment companies have made a lot of money harming Black, brown and indigenous students whether they want to admit it or not. ETS [Educational Testing Service] should be donating to make up for all the harm that they have done. When I say ETS, I mean every single one of them: ACT, Curriculum Associates, NWEA, Pearson. All of them should be doing the work to undo some of that harm. They’re not going to. But I’m going to keep telling them they should.
How have your ideas been received by your colleagues in education measurement?
When I talk about building an assessment that will be culturally relevant or culturally sustaining for students of color, colleagues say we have to be careful not to compromise rigor. I say perhaps we need to reconsider what we’re testing. That has been met with a dead silence. You could hear a mouse fart. (I’m from Alabama. I can say that.)
People are listening to me right now because of what’s going on in society. I think if we hadn’t watched Eric Garner murdered on TV, fewer people would be listening to me and my work wouldn’t be getting published.
But people who have power are still resistant. I can read between the lines. They’re scared to say, “Absolutely not, Jennifer Randall is insane,” because the optics don’t look good. I know what they’re thinking and saying behind closed doors. But I think we have enough people, a core group, where we will be able to make change.
Tell us about your new Center for Measurement Justice.
I didn’t go looking to start a center. I was talking about how we can bring together a network of critical scholars in educational measurement, those of us who are like-minded and realize that there is a problem. The problem is not with students and the parents in their communities but with assessments and measurement itself.
Gaby Lopez at CZI [The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organization of Facebook’s founder] said, instead of Jennifer Randall running all over the place, let’s do better and have a center to hold all this research in one space, and also amplify and elevate the work and really move the work forward in a coordinated and systemic way.* (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is also among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)
We started in January 2022 but we’re still in a soft launch. We’re putting together an advisory board and building 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 you’re not a fan of?
I didn’t start out in education measurement. When I first went back to grad school, I studied what was the equivalent of social justice at Emory. I quickly became frustrated with the defensiveness of white people when you point out systems of oppression, and how they hold back Black and brown students. I was in my 20s and I couldn’t handle it. Education measurement was simple. You try to put everyone on a straight line. At the time, I was a single mother with two kids and my life was chaotic. I needed a nice straight line.
One of your kids is Gabby Thomas, the sprinter who won two track-and-field medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. What have you learned from her about overcoming obstacles?
I actually have a couple of adult kids. Drew, Gabby twin’s brother, is an artist. He designed the logo for the Center for Measurement Justice. Both of my children have taught me that one can be committed to justice through any kind of work. Gabby uses her platform as a track athlete to speak out against health disparities (she is also earning her master’s in public health). Drew uses his art (earning his master’s in fine art) to call out institutional racism. They each leverage their individual talents to fight with the most marginalized communities for justice.
* Clarification: After this column appeared, Randall wrote to clarify that the new research center developed out of her idea for a network of scholars, an idea that CZI supported. The Center was not CZI’s original idea.
This story about anti-racist tests was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.