Frequently Asked Questions & Glossary

FAQ’s

What’s wrong with how U.S. schools assess their students?

Black, Brown, and Indigenous students have historically been marginalized by and through our current systems of assessment. The assessments given to students at all levels – from individual quizzes in elementary school classrooms to standardized district/state-level tests used for accountability purposes to admission tests like the SAT and ACT – routinely include questions that disadvantage students from marginalized communities who grow up in different social, economic, and familial contexts than their counterparts. 

That causes three problems. First, differences in test scores are used to substantiate false narratives of marginalized students’ inferiority and deficiency. Second, faring poorly on large-scale standardized tests in elementary or secondary school can keep children from being moved into a higher grade or accepted into honors programs or highly-selective magnet schools. Third, the use of assessments to reduce educational inequities have in fact exacerbated them by increasing high school dropout rates and encouraging curriculum changes that avoid topics of cultural significance to Black, Brown, and Indigenous students. 

Isn’t the problem really with the schools and not the assessments themselves?

Many people argue that assessments reflect, but don’t cause, the long standing educational inequities. To be sure, systemic racism has shaped education policies that have underfunded and under-resourced schools in Black and Brown neighborhoods for decades. Differences in opportunities to learn are likely reflected in test score disparities. Education reform leaders – especially in Black communities – have been fighting for decades to improve learning conditions for marginalized students. 

At the same time, educational assessments themselves are also a significant driver of educational inequities. The same racist assumptions that underpin our school systems are also embedded in the very fabric of assessment design, use, and interpretation. Assessments fail to represent the ways of knowing and understanding of marginalized students, and as a result present significant barriers to them. CMJ focuses its work on improving those assessments.  

What makes the current assessment system so flawed? 

Tests, quizzes, writing assignments, and class projects are necessary tools to gather information about what students know and are able to do, but current assessments ignore and even degrade the ways of knowing and understanding historically marginalized people. In a 2009 interview, Edd Taylor described how he observed students from a low-income African American community negotiating the purchase of snacks at a local corner store relying on numerous mathematical understandings including place value. Yet, when those students were given an assessment on place value they appeared to have little or no proficiency at all. In another example, he describes how students can calculate 10% of their income for tithing purposes, but not 10% of a number on formal assessments. The point is cultural context matters; and any assessment that seeks to remove that context is inherently flawed and less likely to be an accurate assessment of what students know and are able to do. 

 

What is the solution? 

Everyone involved in the assessment development process – from the local, district and state officials who decide which ones to use to those who create them – should acknowledge the flaws of the current system. We need to create new assessment approaches that ensure all students, especially those from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, are valued and affirmed. We need to use educational measurement as a tool to undo a history of harm to these communities. These are key parts of what we call “measurement justice.”

Who will benefit from improving the assessment system? 

A measurement justice approach to assessment will bring tangible benefits to educators, parents, and students across all sociocultural identities. It centers the Black, Brown and Indigenous students who have been historically marginalized in our education system, and the benefits are not limited to those communities. Indeed, all learners will gain from the widespread adaptation of assessment practices that counter negative stereotypes, provide accurate historical perspectives, and allow for multiple paths to demonstrating knowledge. Building an assessment approach which ensures that students of every race and socioeconomic background can achieve their full potential is a responsibility shared by all test developers, educators, researchers, and school administrators.  

 

What is the Center for Measurement Justice (CMJ)?

CMJ is a research institute with a practical vision. We are a community of scholars, educational measurement professionals, and advocates dedicated to developing anti-racist assessment approaches and ensuring that they’re incorporated into all levels of teaching and assessment. We work for and with the most marginalized populations actively disrupting and dismantling systems and processes of oppression manifest in current assessment/measurement practices. 

What does CMJ do?

CMJ aims to transform assessment research, development, and practices so that they value and better serve marginalized students. We move towards this goal by producing research on the impact, methods, and implementation of socially just assessments; increasing the number of Black, Brown, and Indigenous scholars in the educational measurement field through research grants, internships, and mentorship opportunities; and by providing data-informed guidance to state and local districts – as well as major testing companies – on their assessment practices. 

Glossary

Antiracist assessment

An antiracist framework for assessment must always critically question the structures and assumptions that make up the judgment of all assessment developers. It is explicit about its politics and its intent to reconstruct hierarchical racial power arrangements that have been historically (re)produced via assessments. With antiracist approaches to assessment, we acknowledge both the current and historical role of race and racism in our own assessment practices. Specifically, antiracist assessments:

  • Explicitly disrupt conventional negative stereotypes, as they relate to any marginalized group
  • Highlight oppressive sociopolitical inequities and injustices while empowering students to enact change
  • Provide complete and accurate contemporary and historical perspectives that go beyond celebrating and/or protecting whiteness
  • Allow for multiple ways of knowing/understanding and performing the content

Culturally sustaining assessment

Culturally sustaining assessment (CSA) seeks to use assessment as a tool to sustain, rather than to erase or to assimilate, the lifeways of historically marginalized communities. In an CS approach to assessment, the sociocultural identities of BIPOC students are deliberately integrated (not simply valued) in every planning/development phase of the assessment. Culturally sustaining approaches to assessment (a) draw on BIPOC students’ “funds of knowledge” (b) are connected to the lives of these students, (c) allow them to demonstrate their competence in a variety of ways through “community cultural wealth,” and (d) are embedded within a culturally sustaining curriculum (Paris & Alim, 2014). While culturally sustaining and antiracist assessments are related, not all CSAs are antiracist, and not all antiracist assessments actively seek to sustain a culture.

Culturally responsive assessments

Montenegro and Jankowski (2017) defined culturally responsive assessment as assessment that is “mindful of the student populations the institution serves, using language that is appropriate for all students when developing learning outcomes, acknowledging students’ differences in the planning phases of an assessment effort, developing and/or using assessment tools that are appropriate for different students, and being intentional in using assessment results to improve learning for all students (p.10).”

Racial Justice

The systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. Racial justice — or racial equity — … is not just the absence of discrimination and inequities, but also “the presence of deliberate systems and supports to achieve and sustain racial equity through proactive and preventative measures.” – Center for Racial Justice Innovation, 2015, p 31.

Assessments vs. Measurement vs. Evaluation

Assessment refers to the process of gathering information about what students know and are able to do (e.g., a test, quiz, writing assignment, having them raise their hands to answer questions). Measurement is technically the assignment of a number or a score (e.g., MCAS score of 350 or SAT score of 1200) based on a set of rules. Then evaluation is the judgment of that score (e.g., 350 is proficient or 1200 is good enough for admission or 8 out 10 is a B).

Critical Scholarship

“Critical scholarship … is a way of thinking about research as a form of resistance. While resistance is usually associated with the politics of the day, with tangible forms of oppression or with nuanced forms of manipulation, we believe that we must balance the production of the orthodoxy with resistance to system-preserving truths. … [Critical scholarship] is a way of approaching knowledge that is inherently not certain, always fluid, rooted in the lived experiences of people with multiplicity of life-contexts and informed by dialogue, relationship, and connection with those who have a stake in the knowledge being generated. Critical research is not out to create truth; it aims to consider the moment and looks forward to a way of seeing that moment in ways we could not have imagined. Finally, it invites into the research process an active identification of and engagement with power, with the social systems and structures, ideologies and paradigms that uphold the status quo.” (Gharabaghi & Anderson-Nathe, 2017). Gharabaghi, K., & Anderson-Nathe, B. (2017). The need for critical scholarship. Child & Youth Services, 38(2), 95-97.