A federal judge in New York has struck down a test used by New York City to vet potential teachers, finding the test of knowledge illegally discriminated against racial minorities due to their lower scores.
At first glance, the city’s second Liberal Arts and Science Test (LAST-2) seems fairly innocuous. Unlike the unfair literacy tests of Jim Crow, LAST-2 was given to every teaching candidate in New York, and it was simply a test to make sure that teachers had a basic high school-level understanding of both the liberal arts and the sciences.
One sample question from the test asked prospective educators to identify the mathematical principle of a linear relationship when given four examples; another asked them to read four passages from the Constitution and identify which illustrated checks and balances. Besides factual knowledge, the test also checks basic academic skills, such as reading comprehension and the ability to read basic charts and graphs.
Nevertheless, this apparently neutral subject matter contained an insidious kernel of racism, because Hispanic and black applicants had a passage rate only 54 to 75 percent of the passage rate for whites.
Once their higher failure rate was established, the burden shifted to New York to prove that LAST-2 measured skills that were essential for teachers and therefore was justified in having a racially unequal outcome. While it might seem obvious that possessing basic subject knowledge is a key skill for a teacher, District Judge Kimba Wood said the state hadn’t met that burden.
“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,” Wood wrote in her opinion, according to The New York Times.
LAST-2 hasn’t been used in New York since 2012, but the ruling will still have repercussions. Minorities who failed the exam (who number in the thousands) may be owed years of back pay totaling millions of dollars, and those who were relegated to substitute teaching jobs could be promoted to having their own classrooms. In addition, while Wood’s ruling only applies to New York City, the test was used statewide, and it could serve as a precedent for further lawsuits.
The ruling could also pave the way for another ruling finding New York’s current teacher test, the Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST), to be discriminatory as well. That test is even harder than LAST-2, with a strong focus on literacy skills such as writing and reading comprehension, and like LAST-2 it has a very large gap in scores between whites and minorities. A lawsuit, once again being heard by Wood, is already pending, with the plaintiffs arguing that there is no clear evidence strong literacy skills are essential for a teacher.