Mass. Teacher Test Lawsuit Filed
FairTest Examiner, July 2009
Three minority educators have initiated litigation charging that the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL) is racially biased and not valid. Eleven years after the start of the state’s controversial teacher testing program (http://www.fairtest.org/new-mass-teachers-test-fails-professional-standards), the federal class action lawsuit seeks damages for lost employment and an injunction stopping further test administration.
The plaintiffs claim MTEL violates Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, equal protection clauses in the U.S. and Massachusetts Constitutions, and state consumer protection laws. They cite data showing that minority applicants failed the exam at nearly twice the rate of whites. For example, 54% of African American test-takers did not pass the writing portion of the exam in the 2005-2006 school year. More than 60% of native Spanish speakers also failed. By comparison, only 23% of whites failed.
Defendants in the case include the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Boston Public Schools, and National Evaluation Systems (NES), the exam’s manufacturer, now a division of Pearson Education. NES has a poor track-record. The firm’s teacher licensing exam was thrown out in Alabama when a lawsuit revealed validity evidence was fabricated. A federal court is currently reconsidering a racial bias case against an NES test used in New York (http://www.fairtest.org/u-s-appeals-court-reinstates). In a 2001 report, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences blasted NES for failing to comply with requests for data about its products’ accuracy and fairness (http://www.fairtest.org/reports-blast-teacher-tests). A 2008 panel convened by the Massachusetts Department of Education reported that NES failed to provide adequate validity data, particularly regarding the test's impact on minority candidates.
Tyler Fox, the attorney representing the Massachusetts teachers, explained, “The Commonwealth should never have hired NES, much less continued to allow its tests to be used to determine who should be allowed to teach. It is clearly discriminatory to deny otherwise qualified candidates employment because of scores on a flawed test.” His clients want the state to hire individuals who were denied classroom jobs because of their test scores and award back pay, seniority and other benefits. They also seek creation of a new teacher licensure system.
No matter how the case is resolved, it should lead to the first comprehensive external review of the Massachusetts teacher licensing exams. Legal requirements for discovery and document production are likely to compel NES to make public previously secret information about its tests. If the suit is successful, the state and its contractors could be held accountable for developing and promoting an invalid, biased exam.
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