Job-related or race-related?

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Late last month, in a troubling decision, a federal appeals court reversed an important 2003 ruling on teacher testing. Earlier a court had ruled that the liberal arts test used by the state of New York for licensing new teachers was not racially discriminatory. This new ruling bolsters the chances for the literally thousands of black and Hispanic teachers who are seeking tens of millions of dollars worth of back pay and lost pension benefits from the New York City public school system.

The plaintiffs' claim that the test is racially discriminatory is based on dramatic differences (with gaps as high as 50 percent) in the passing rates of minorities and white teachers. They asserted successfully that certain questions on the test were "culturally and generationally bound."

Ironically, the earlier ruling--which had stated that the test was "job-related" and therefore non-discriminatory--was issued by none other than Constance Baker Motley, the celebrated civil rights attorney who wrote the legal complaint in Brown v. Board of Education.

Unfortunately, as Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips note in The Black-White Test Score Gap, the achievement gap in test scores "appears before children enter kindergarten and persists into adulthood"--and teacher licensing tests are no exception.