Michigan Suit Seeks End to Test Based Scholarships

K-12 Testing

A coalition of civil rights organizations has filed suit to stop use of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) tests as the sole criterion for awarding state-funded college scholarships. The plaintiffs, who represent six graduating seniors, are seeking revised selection criteria that include students’ grade point averages and other measures of actual academic achievement.


White v. Engler charges that the use of MEAP test scores discriminates against high school students on the basis of race, ethnicity, and educational disadvantage. Thirty-four percent of eligible white students qualified for scholarships in 1999, but only 7% of African Americans, 20% of Hispanics, and 19% of Native Americans taking the test met the minimum MEAP scores. Wealthy suburban school districts also consistently reported higher test scores than large urban or smaller rural districts.


Plaintiffs say these practices violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from engaging in race discrimination, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The MEAP test has never been validated as a means of assessing individual student achievement but rather was designed to measure school performance.


“By relying on the MEAP test to award scholarships, the State of Michigan is misusing the test,” explained Kary Moss, Executive Director of the state American Civil Liberties Union affiliate. “All students should be judged fairly, by looking at the range of their accomplishments as individuals in the same way that colleges and universities evaluate applicants.” The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, and several private attorneys also joined in the suit. At their request, FairTest submitted an affidavit supporting plaintiffs’ claims.


The suit asks a federal district court to order Michigan to discontinue use of the MEAP test to award merit scholarships, adopt new procedures for selection, and reevaluate the eligibility of those students denied awards this year.


The Michigan Merit Award Scholarship Program was created in 1999 and is funded by the state’s share of revenues from a settlement agreement with tobacco manufacturers. Awards of $2,500 are available to graduating seniors attending in-state colleges and $1,000 to students attending out-of-state colleges. Some critics have charged that the program amounts to a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, since low-income people smoke more but children from well-to-do families score highest on the test.