Judge Rules NYC Licensing Test Was Racially Biased

In a setback for the New York City’s Board of Education, a U.S. Judge ruled that an old standardized exam used to license teachers prior to allowing them in the classroom wasn’t sufficiently vetted for bias against black and Latino candidates. U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in Manhattan rendered the decision on a class action lawsuit which has been making its way through the court system in New York for several years, and concerns the exam administered between the years of 1996 and 2000.

The plaintiffs will now get an opportunity to retain a monitor to evaluate if the exam currently being used also has invalid provisions that were found to be problematic in the previous version of the exam.

Wood also ruled to decertify the class of plaintiffs, hindering their attempts to seek back pay as part of the judgment. Instead, teachers who felt that they were disadvantaged by the exam will have to seek damages from the city individually. Considering how long the exam was in place, that could mean hundreds of thousands of teachers might end up pursuing damage claims against the district.

Wednesday’s ruling marked the latest instance of a federal judge taking issue with New York City employment tests. A federal judge in Brooklyn in March ordered the city to pay up to $128.7 million after finding New York City Fire Department exams had “discriminatory effects” on minority applicants from 1999 to 2007.

“These are two major federal court decisions invalidating public employment tests,” said Baher Azmy, the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the plaintiffs in both cases.

The initial lawsuit was filed in 1996 by four teachers, three black and one Latino. In their filing they claimed that the exam used to license teachers in NYC was discriminatory and unfair to non-whites.

According to the initial filing, the exams used by the city – National Teacher Core Battery exam and the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test – had a much higher pass rate for white teachers than minority candidates. Latino and black candidates who took the exam for the first time passed at a rate of about 55%, while white test-takers had a pass rate of more than 90%.

Those who failed the exam lost their conditional licenses. As a result, they could only work as substitute teachers and had lower salaries, benefits and seniority, the plaintiffs said.

About 8,000 to 15,000 teachers have suffered demotion, termination, reduced pay and other losses because they failed the tests, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. The center’s Web site did not provide a time frame for that statistic.

Although the NYC Department of Education defended the exam as being entirely work related, Wood found that it wasn’t properly validated to ensure that it was racially and ethnically unbiased.

After the decision was made public, Eamonn Foley, a lawyer with the New York City Law Department, praised Wood for decertifying the class action, but didn’t indicate if the city intends to appeal the remainder of the ruling.

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