A federal judge on Friday found that an exam for New York teaching candidates was racially discriminatory because it did not measure skills necessary to do the job, the latest step in a court battle over teacher qualifications that has spanned nearly 20 years.
The exam, the second incarnation of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, called the LAST-2, was administered from 2004 through 2012 and was designed to test an applicant’s knowledge of liberal arts and science.
But the test was found to fail minority teaching candidates at a higher rate than white candidates. According to Friday’s decision, written by Judge Kimba M. Wood of Federal District Court in Manhattan, the pass rate for African-American and Latino candidates was between 54 percent and 75 percent of the pass rate for white candidates. Once it was established that minority applicants were failing at a disproportionately high rate, the burden shifted to education officials to prove that the skills being tested were necessary to do the job; otherwise, the test would be ruled discriminatory.
In creating the test, the company, National Evaluation Systems, sent surveys to educators around New York State to determine if the test’s “content objectives” were relevant and important to teaching. The samples for both surveys were small, however, Judge Wood said.
The judge found that National Evaluation Systems, now called Evaluation Systems, part of Pearson Education, went about the process backward.
“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,” Judge Wood wrote.
Joshua Sohn, a partner at the firm Mishcon de Reya, who represents the prospective teachers in the case, echoed that sentiment.
“They started with the conclusion, without any support, that this is what you actually needed to know to be an effective teacher,” Mr. Sohn said.
With this ruling, the LAST-2 meets the same fate of the LAST-1, an earlier version of the test, given from 1993 to 2004, that was also found to be discriminatory.
It was not immediately clear how many people would be affected by the decision or how much this might cost New York City.
So far, about 3,900 people have filed claim forms over the first version of the exam. Mr. Sohn said the compensation is still being litigated. Some of those people worked as substitutes and may now be eligible for full-time positions, while others had already been promoted because they met other hiring requirements.
Mr. Sohn said thousands of people presumably took the second exam version while it was in use, and under Title VII, the federal prohibition on employment discrimination, minority candidates who failed might be entitled to back pay. This ruling applies only to the city, but could have ramifications for the rest of the state, where the test was also used.
Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the New York City Law Department, said Friday that Judge Wood’s decision “was expected and we will proceed accordingly.” A spokesman for the New York State Education Department, which establishes certification criteria for teachers, declined to comment.
Neither version of the exams is still in use in New York. Instead the state administers a new test called the Academic Literacy Skills Test, or the ALST, along with a slate of other assessments. The fate of the ALST, however, was recently called into question as well. This spring, Judge Wood began questioning whether that test, too, was racially discriminatory. A hearing is scheduled on the issue for later this month.
The examination of the ALST comes at a time when many states are introducing more rigorous certification tests, an attempt to raise the bar of entry to the teaching profession and, supporters say, to ensure that all teachers are qualified and able to do their jobs well.
But the tests’ impact on minorities has also been a concern because of a dearth of minority teachers.
Last month the state Board of Regents agreed to postpone for a year the requirement that candidates pass the ALST.
According to the city’s Department of Education, while 25 percent of the city’s public school students are black and 41 percent are Hispanic, 60 percent of its teachers are white. Fifteen percent of the teachers are Hispanic and 18 percent are black.