STANDING on the steps of the federal courthouse in New Haven, the lawyer Karen Torre reveled in her clients’ victory in a recent case before the Supreme Court. She anointed her clients : the white firefighters who scored well on a promotion test :”a symbol”for millions of Americans who are”tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity.”
But the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision last month : that New Haven should not have scrapped the test : perpetuates profound misconceptions about the capacity of paper-and-pencil tests to gauge a person’s potential on the job. Exams like the one the New Haven firefighters took are neither designed nor administered to identify the employees most qualified for promotion. And Ms. Torre’s identity-politics sloganeering diverts attention from what we need most: a clear-eyed reassessment of our blind faith in entrenched testing regimes.
New Haven used a multiple-choice test to measure its firefighters’ retention of information from national firefighting textbooks and study guides. Civil service tests like these do not identify people who are best suited for leadership positions. The most important skills of any fire department lieutenant or captain are steady command presence, sound judgment and the ability to make life-or-death decisions under pressure. In a city that is nearly 60 percent black and Latino, the ability to promote cross-racial harmony under stress is also crucial.
These skills are not well measured by tests that reward memorization and ask irrelevant questions like whether it is best to approach a particular emergency from uptown or downtown even when the city isn’t oriented that way. The Civil Service Board in New Haven declined to certify the test not only because of concerns about difference in scores between black and white firefighters but also because it failed to assess qualities essential for firefighting.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, tests drawn from national textbooks often do not match a city’s local firefighting needs. Most American fire departments have abandoned such tests or limited the multiple-choice format to 30 percent or less of an applicant’s score. In New Haven, the test still accounted for 60 percent of the score. Compounding the problem, insignificant numerical score differences were used to rank the firefighter candidates. …
Read the entire piece here.
On a related note, for research documenting gender based performance differentials on AP tests, go here. The paper suggests that AP tests can be formulated to favor students of one gender over the other.
–Ann Bartow, NYT article via Danielle Holley-Walker