Judge Rules Second Version of New York Teachers’ Exam Is Also Racially Biased

Elizabeth A. Harris, New York Times, June 5, 2015

A federal judge on Friday found that an exam for New York teaching candidates was racially discriminatory because it did not measure skills necessary to do the job, the latest step in a court battle over teacher qualifications that has spanned nearly 20 years.

The exam, the second incarnation of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, called the LAST-2, was administered from 2004 through 2012 and was designed to test an applicant’s knowledge of liberal arts and science.

But the test was found to fail minority teaching candidates at a higher rate than white candidates. According to Friday’s decision, written by Judge Kimba M. Wood of Federal District Court in Manhattan, the pass rate for African-American and Latino candidates was between 54 percent and 75 percent of the pass rate for white candidates. Once it was established that minority applicants were failing at a disproportionately high rate, the burden shifted to education officials to prove that the skills being tested were necessary to do the job; otherwise, the test would be ruled discriminatory.

In creating the test, the company, National Evaluation Systems, sent surveys to educators around New York State to determine if the test’s “content objectives” were relevant and important to teaching. The samples for both surveys were small, however, Judge Wood said.

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“Instead of beginning with ascertaining the job tasks of New York teachers, the two LAST examinations began with the premise that all New York teachers should be required to demonstrate an understanding of the liberal arts,” Judge Wood wrote.

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With this ruling, the LAST-2 meets the same fate of the LAST-1, an earlier version of the test, given from 1993 to 2004, that was also found to be discriminatory.

It was not immediately clear how many people would be affected by the decision or how much this might cost New York City.

So far, about 3,900 people have filed claim forms over the first version of the exam. Mr. Sohn said the compensation is still being litigated. Some of those people worked as substitutes and may now be eligible for full-time positions, while others had already been promoted because they met other hiring requirements.

Mr. Sohn said thousands of people presumably took the second exam version while it was in use, and under Title VII, the federal prohibition on employment discrimination, minority candidates who failed might be entitled to back pay. This ruling applies only to the city, but could have ramifications for the rest of the state, where the test was also used.

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Neither version of the exams is still in use in New York. Instead the state administers a new test called the Academic Literacy Skills Test, or the ALST, along with a slate of other assessments. The fate of the ALST, however, was recently called into question as well. This spring, Judge Wood began questioning whether that test, too, was racially discriminatory. A hearing is scheduled on the issue for later this month.

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Last month the state Board of Regents agreed to postpone for a year the requirement that candidates pass the ALST.

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