7 Black Houston Firefighters Sue, Say City Exam Biased

Carolyn Feibel, Houston Chronicle, February 5, 2009

Seven black firefighters are suing the city, contending that the Houston Fire Department’s test for officer promotions adversely affects blacks.

“This is systemic discrimination,” said the firefighters’ attorney, Dennis Thompson. “Selection rates for African-Americans are abysmally smaller than for white candidates.”

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Firefighters trying to attain the rank of captain and above in the Houston Fire Department must take a 100-question multiple-choice test. Numerous studies show that blacks as a group do less well on high-stakes tests, Thompson said. He said fire departments should use cognitive tests only as a pass-fail benchmark and also should focus on performance exercises and other criteria.

“We don’t do as well on these multiple-choice tests,” said Capt. Otis Jordan, president of the Houston Black Firefighters Association. Jordan and the HBFA are not part of the suit. “I compare fighting a fire, riding an apparatus, to playing football. Your best athlete might not be the straight-A student.”

HFD has about 4,200 firefighters and paramedics. Roughly 700 are black, Jordan said.

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Kevin Michael Foster, an education anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, agreed that research has demonstrated a test score gap between blacks and whites. There are several theories about why, but a primary explanation has to do with minority students disproportionately receiving inferior educations compared to whites, he said.

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During standardized tests, minorities are also vulnerable to performance anxieties that stem from cultural stereotypes, Foster said. {snip}

System adjusted in 2005

While officer promotions once heavily emphasized the written test, HFD’s system was adjusted in 2005 as part of a collective bargaining agreement, said Jeffrey Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341. There has been only one testing cycle since the change, he added.

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The lawsuit seeks promotions to captain or senior captain for the plaintiffs, back pay and damages.

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