An Uncomfortable Truth and Claims of Discrimination

Apr 25, 2009 by

firefighters In two recent cases, one in New Haven Connecticut and the other in Portsmouth Virginia, standardized written exams for firefighters have been labeled discriminatory and the results discarded. These cases are only two in a long list of similar cases which have been seen in recent years.

In Portsmouth the city settled a racial discrimination lawsuit that contended that the exam used to hire entry-level firefighters rejected a disproportionate number of African American candidates. In New Haven a reverse discrimination claim will be considered by the Supreme Court. A group of white firefighters all passed a promotion exam, but the city threw out the exam results because no blacks would have been promoted.

At the heart of the matter in both cases are written exams that have been labeled discriminatory by either the Justice Department or the black and Hispanic candidates taking the tests. In Portsmouth white applicants passed at a rate of 85.9 percent, while the rate for African American applicants was 42.4 percent. As part of a settlement the city will no longer administer the written entrance exam the Justice Department found discriminatory. Additionally the city agreed to put $145,000 into a settlement fund to award back pay to African Americans affected by the city’s use of the exams. Those applicants may also receive priority in future hiring.

In New Haven the exam in question was designed by a professional testing firm that followed federal guidelines for mitigating disparate racial outcomes. But after the exam results came back the city found evidence that the exams were “potentially” flawed. Sources of bias included that the written section measured memorization rather than actual skills needed for the job and gave too much weight to the written section; and the lack of testing for leadership in emergency conditions.

Let me see if I get this right. First too much emphasis was placed on memorization rather than actual skills. Does that mean that blacks are known to not be able to memorize as well as other races and this fact was used to design a test that was deliberately discriminatory? And how can you possibly claim discrimination for something that was not even tested for, like the leadership skills mentioned? Is it a known fact that blacks have better leadership skills than other races and therefore not testing for that was discriminatory? Both of those accusations are patently absurd.

Tinney, a black Lieutenant of the New Haven fire department is quoted as saying.

I’m sure there are numerous reasons why blacks didn’t do as well, and not because we’re not as intelligent. These folks are saying we studied the hardest, we passed the test, we should be promoted. But they’re not talking about all the other things.

What other things Lt. Tinney? Please spell them out in detail. Obviously the tests were not biased. It can only be because the ones who passed did study harder and do deserve to be promoted. Why should black firefighters who did not pass the exam be promoted and the white firefighters who did pass the exam not be promoted? As I said, these tests were written using federal guidelines that were supposed to eliminate any disparity in results between races.

In the Portsmouth lawsuit, the Justice Department determined that Chesapeake and Virginia Beach discriminated against black and Hispanic applicants on the math portion of their entrance exams. How in the world can anyone design a math exam that specifically discriminates again two other races? Another absurd accusation by the Justice Department.

Beneath the specific details of the firefighters’ lawsuits lies an uncomfortable truth: On most standardized tests, regardless of the subject, blacks score lower than whites. In the New Haven exam, the first part had 200 multiple-choice questions counted for 60 percent of the final score. Candidates returned another day to take an oral exam in which they described responses to various scenarios. If any discrimination was manifest in the exams, you would think it would have been in the oral exam, subject to interpretation. Yet the complaint was against the written part of the exam and the fact that it accounted for more than 50 percent of the final score.

The white firefighters’ attorney, Karen Torre, said.

All were afforded the same notice, the same study period, the same exam syllabi, etc. The rest was up to the individual.

And there lies the crux of the matter. Overlooked in all the hoopla was the fact that some black and Hispanic candidates and applicants did quite well. It was just that the majority of them did not do as well. I agree that the problem is not a matter of intelligence on the part of blacks, but I also disagree that the problem is that the exams are discriminatory. There may well be other mitigating circumstances that explain the differences between the scores of whites, blacks, and Hispanics. But deliberately discriminatory exams is not one of them. If someone can show me concrete proof that the tests were discriminatory in some way, other than vague accusations, I would love to see the proof. Until then I can only say that cases like these do more harm than good. Hiring and promotion can only be done fairly by testing. And if the results aren’t to the liking of some, they need to look at themselves and wonder what they could have done differently to improve their scores.

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