Feds to probe discrimination against Asians in Montgomery County Schools

Like a great many school districts, Montgomery County, Maryland has magnet programs for its top students. Students from outside the normal neighborhood boundaries of a school can be admitted to the programs. Selection is supposed to be based on merit.

Between 2016 and 2017, the number of Asian-American students admitted into two sought-after middle school magnet programs in Montgomery County dropped by 23 percent. The next year, it dropped again, this time by 20 percent.

What happened? Were the Asian-American students eligible for the programs in these years significantly less bright than their older brothers and sisters? Were they less ambitious, and thus less inclined to apply?

Our did what the Washington Post calls “a wave of attention to diversity issues” cause the school system to rig the selection process against Asian-American students?

The question is now before the federal government, after parents of Asian-Americans complained en masse that Montgomery County discriminated against their kids. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights says it will investigate.

The raw numbers present what I consider a prima facie case of discrimination. But perhaps the school system has a non-discriminatory explanation for the sudden sharp decline in Asian students admitted (other than the snarky ones I presented above).

One possible explanation is that students are viewed less favorably as candidates for a magnet program if they have a peer group of 20 or more similarly gifted classmates at their neighborhood school. As the Washington Post explains, the idea is that such a peer group can come together for advanced classes, whereas gifted students who don’t have many gifted peers need a magnet program more.

If this criterion was adopted between 2016 and 2017, if it wasn’t adopted with the intent of changing the racial balance of the magnet programs, and if it actually explains the drop in Asian-American students admitted, then it may count as a legitimate non-discriminatory explanation. It would be interesting, though, to see if it also explains the big drop in Asian-American students the following year, and whether it had a similar impact on white students.

A spokesman for Montgomery County offered a different, more comprehensive explanation. He said the decline in Asian-American students admitted is due to a much larger and more diverse applicant pool.

What happened is that the County adopted “universal screening.” Instead of considering only students who applied for the programs on their own initiative (or their parents’), the County screened more than 8,000 fifth-graders and administered a cognitive skills test to about half of them.

A committee then rated about 1,000 students based on test results and classroom grades. The existence of a “peer group” (as discussed above) was factored into the analysis by some sort of computer program. This process yielded the student body for the magnet programs.

According to the Post, the Department of Education says it will consider whether the school system adopted universal screening “to intentionally exclude Asian and Asian-American students from its magnet middle schools.” I’m not sure that’s the right question. I see nothing wrong with expanding the applicant pool, so to speak, to provide opportunities for students whose parents might not be as on top of things like magnet school programs as other parents are.

The analogy would be an employer that decides to advertise jobs in media frequented primarily by African-Americans or Latinos and that begins recruiting at historically Black colleges. I have always viewed this kind of outreach as the right, lawful kind of “affirmative action.”

To me, the key question when it comes to Montgomery County magnet schools is whether the entire drop in Asian-American admissions actually is due to the new processes implemented by the school system (coupled, perhaps, with other potential non-discriminatory explanations).

If it is, the federal government shouldn’t have a problem. In my view, Asian-American parents have no legitimate complaint if their kids suddenly had to compete with more Black and Latino students and began losing spots at magnet schools because some of the minority students out-competed them.

But if the government finds, on close examination of the new selection process, that it is not applied in a race-neutral way, then Montgomery County has engaged in race discrimination. The government will then need to remedy the problem.

One Asian-American parent described the County’s selection process as a “black box.” From the Post’s article, it sounds that way.

“Black box” selection processes sometimes mask discrimination. Because the statistics create a prima facie case of discrimination, I think the burden should be on the County to help the government penetrate the inner workings of the selection process and to show that the “black box” isn’t masking discrimination against Asian-American children.

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