U.S. Sues NYC Over Custodian Tests

Teacher & Employment Testing

The United States Department of Justice has brought suit against New York City, charging that the tests used to hire and promote school custodians are racially biased and not job-related. Though the city's working-age population is 22% Black and 19% Hispanic, Whites fill 92% of custodian positions, which pay about $51,000 per year, according to the federal complaint. Court documents indicate that Asians and women are also excluded.


The Justice Department case charges that the multiple-choice exams do not fairly assess the minimum skills necessary to maintain a school building in decent repair. The test scores do, however, "disproportionately exclude blacks and Hispanics from employment." Copies of the custodian hiring and promotion tests are not made public by New York City, but officials admit that of the 104 persons selected based on a recent exam, only two were Black and five Hispanic.


To resolve the suit, brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Justice Department seeks elimination of the exams and compensation for candidates who may have been passed over due to low scores.


Like many other municipalities, New York City instituted a system of hiring by "merit and fitness," which often means exclusive reliance on test scores, as a response to accusations of patronage and corruption in public sector hiring. But, as the Justice Department lawsuit makes clear, so-called "objective" personnel selection techniques can be just as biased and irrelevant as the system they were designed to replace.


"When unreasonable and unnecessary hurdles knock out qualified minorities, we will take all steps to eliminate them and to compensate any victims," concluded U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick.