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The Need for Anti-Racist Psychological Assessment


“I like to ask clients directly what they think of their assessment results,” stated GSE Assistant Professor Alea Holman, Ph.D., during her recent anti-racist psychological assessment workshop sponsored by the Hagin School Consultation Center. “Assessment should be a positive experience that adds knowledge, contributes to clients’ self-worth, and encourages self-advocacy.” The reasoning, explained Holman, is that clients are experts on themselves, and that knowledge should be utilized during the assessment process. It is key to adopt a culturally humble attitude and allow clients to ask questions, which positively contributes to a transparent and productive testing process.

This approach demonstrates how Holman promotes anti-racist psychological assessment in part by using therapeutic collaborative assessment. She believes it is important to make room for the kind of extended inquiry that therapeutic collaborative assessment allows, thereby fostering trust with clients and including them in the testing process in order to obtain the most accurate assessment data.

Holman shared with the workshop’s several dozen attendees that cognitive ability testing in the U.S. evolved from a white supremacist framework, one that used “white norms” to advocate for segregated education based upon the assumption that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color had inferior intelligence. She noted that addressing racism as it affects current assessment practices must involve acknowledging and re-envisioning these practices.

According to Holman, “Anti-racism [in psychological assessment]requires structural change,” because current systems, institutions, and factors exist that advantage white individuals in psychological assessment testing and disadvantage people of color. More specifically, testing often involves assessing intellectual disability (ID), emotional disturbance (ED), and specific learning disability (SLD), special education categories to which people of color are disproportionately assigned. In Holman’s view, current assessment methods can also be problematic because many support services for students cannot be accessed without a specific diagnosis and the resultant stigma attached. She added, “Within schools, a lack of diversity, among school psychologists in particular, increases the possibilities for implicit bias, micro-aggressions, and cultural hegemony that further harm students of color.”

Following the above discussion, Holman asked attendees: “Based upon your experiences, what do you see as the most racist, unethical, and/or unjust parts of how assessments are currently conducted and used?”

One workshop participant shared that in her experience, it’s important to know who was tested to establish norms when she uses assessment tools. She believes it’s necessary to ask, “Were the test subjects all white, suburban children, versus the largely urban children of color with whom I work?”

Another respondent shared that often, the assessment tools she uses are based on studies done using majority white test subjects. Yet the students with whom she works have cultural experiences representing a wide range of communities, which she finds can greatly affect assessment results. She added, “We are often told to ‘mark up’ results in our assessments so that there is a greater likelihood that students will qualify for and receive services. Doing that, though, can further stigmatize students of color by making them appear to have more severe disabilities than actually exist.”

Holman then provided details regarding how changes might be made to help school psychologists and other professional practitioners better assess their clients: “In addition to the standard assessment tools, we have to seriously consider how other factors are influencing children’s functioning. For example, those assessing students should ask the following questions: Who was included in the normative sample to which I’m comparing the child being assessed? What is the quality of the school that the child we’re assessing attends? Has the child experienced trauma at home or in school?”

Holman concluded by emphasizing, “Context is always key when interpreting and presenting assessment data.”


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