Biased Chicago Firefighter Test

Teacher & Employment Testing

A federal court has found that Chicago used a “statistically meaningless” exam cut-off score that resulted in discrimination against African Americans who were seeking jobs in the city’s fire department. The ruling could result in the payment of tens of millions of dollars to applicants who had unfairly been denied employment.


U.S. District Judge Gottschall concluded that the test “could not distinguish between those who were qualified for the position . . . and those who were not.” The firefighter’s exam was first administered in 1995 to 26,000 applicants. At that time, its creator recommended that Chicago hire from a pool consisting of all candidates who scored 65 or more, in part to reduce disparate racial impacts. But the city chose to offer jobs only to those among the top 1,782 who scored at least 89, a level it arbitrarily defined as “well-qualified.” That pool was nearly four-fifths white. Judge Gottschall said Chicago officials knew such a cutoff score would exclude a high percentage of African Americans but selected it for “administrative convenience.”


Last year, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, an enthusiastic advocate of testing misuse in public schools (see Examiner, Spring/Summer 2004) as well as for employment, turned down a plea from minority alderman to settle the case. It is not yet known whether the city will appeal.


The case was brought by the African American Firefighters League. Before going to federal court, the job-seekers had won two favorable rulings from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which also found the minimum test score requirement discriminatory.


Next steps in the case are hearings to determine the size and scope of damages. Attorneys for the nearly 6,000 class-action plaintiffs estimate that claims against the city would be in the range of $80 million to
$90 million. That figure could soar if Hispanic firefighter applicants win a demand for similar treatment.