"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Racism Veiled by Testing Wins 5-4, Again

From the Chronicle:
To Test or Not to Test

A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that 61% of Americans are against affirmative action for blacks in hiring, promotion, and college admissions. So when the New Haven fire department’s decision to stop using a written test for promoting firefighters because no African American passed the test, the Supreme Court was on firm ground in the popularity contest to overturn a lower court’s approval.

Much of the opposition against affirmative action isn’t about racism or stinginess, but about a charming belief in tests. Certainly, if affirmative action was about giving unqualified people jobs, promotions, or college admissions very few people would or should support it.

Yikes! who would want a black surgeon or, DOUBLE YIKES a female economics blogger?!

If there is a robust metric out there – an indicator that is highly correlated with success in a job or college — then, by all means, let’s use them to separate the competent from the incompetent.

Here is a test:

You are in a burning building. Do you want a firefighter rescuer (choose one:)
a. who passed a written test,
b. who has a sister-in-law on the city council member or is of a certain race,
c. who has proven on-the-job performance and successfully passed simulated fire rescues

Answer class?

The majority chooses c.

Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times reports that there are different ways to assess competency that do far better than written exams. The ability to handle an emergency, lead and motivate a group, and communicate instructions and goals are necessary firefighter captain skills. And down the street from New Haven, in Bridgeport, Conn., the fire department searches for those skills directly by using a battery of labor–intensive simulations and oral exams to promote select rank-and-file to fire lieutenants and captains.

In the labor market employers never really know what the future productivity of their employees will be, so they always search for signs, signals, and indicators to make the best selections. The upside of this Supreme Court decision, and an earlier one on the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions practices, could be colleges and employers moving away from test scores and innovating to find better alternatives so we find the best man or woman to do the job and the students who’ll get the most out of college.

That is the glass half full version.

The glass half empty version is that this is a sign that five members of the Supreme Court want to weaken civil rights protections, especially at the work place.

Justice Ginsburg has an opinion about that: “the Court pretends that “[t]he City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.” Ante, at 20. That pretension, essential to the Court’s disposition, ignores substantial evidence of multiple flaws in the tests New Haven used. The Court similarly fails to acknowledge the better tests used in other cities, which have yielded less racially skewed outcomes.. “

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