How Montgomery County, Maryland discriminates against Asians

I wrote here about how the federal government is probing the Montgomery County School system to determine whether it is discriminating against Asian-American students by limiting their admission into two highly sought-after magnet school programs. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of Asian-American students admitted into the two programs dropped by 23 percent. The next year, it dropped again, this time by 20 percent.

One reason for the sharp decline is that the County began disfavoring high-performing students for the programs if they have have a peer group of 20 or more similarly gifted classmates with whom they can come together for advanced classes at their neighborhood school. The rationale is that such students don’t need a magnet program as much as students who lack a critical mass of gifted peers.

Assuming that this selection criterion operates to curb the number of Asian-American students in magnet programs, can it nonetheless be defended as a neutral rule that provides a non-discriminatory explanation for the exclusion of Asian-American students who, under the old selection system, would have been admitted to a magnet school? I think the answer depends on whether the “peer group” criterion was adopted for a racially discriminatory purpose.

A school system can use magnet programs in any way it sees fit, as long as it doesn’t use them for a race-based purpose. If Montgomery County wants its magnet programs primarily to serve students from weaker schools, on the theory that these students need magnet schools the most, that should be its prerogative, I believe.

But it’s not Montgomery County’s prerogative to assign students to its magnet schools, or keep them out, because of their race. If the County adopts a selection device for the purpose of manipulating the racial mix at its magnet schools, that’s problematic.

Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that Montgomery County adopted the “peer group” criterion for the purpose of increasing the admissions of Black and Latino students to its magnet programs. In 2016, just before the admission of Asian-American students plummeted, the Metis Report, commissioned by the Montgomery County Board of Education a year earlier, was issued.

From its first pages, the Metis Report focuses on “diversity,” including racial diversity. One of the report’s “key findings” is that “there are significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in the enrollment and acceptance rates to academically selective programs, which suggest a need to revise the criteria and process used to select students for these programs to eliminate barriers to access for highly able students of all backgrounds.” (Emphasis added). In other words, the report sees a need to change the selection process to achieve outcomes more favorable to members of certain racial and/or ethnic groups. To achieve this, the report recommends the following:

Implement modifications to the selection process used for academically competitive programs in MCPS, comprising elementary centers for highly gifted students and secondary magnet programs, to focus these programs on selecting equitably from among those applicants that demonstrate a capacity to thrive in the program, that include use of noncognitive criteria, group-specific norms that benchmark student performance against school peers with comparable backgrounds, and/or a process that offers automatic admissions to the programs for students in the top 5-10% of sending elementary or middle schools in the district.

(Emphasis added)

In effect, the report is calling for something akin to “race-norming.” Under race-norming, the performance of applicants for positions is measured not against all applicants, but rather only against applicants from the same racial or ethnic group. Thus, Black applicants, for example, don’t have to outperform most White and Asian-American applicants on a test. They need only outperform most Black applicants.

Montgomery County adopted a variation of the Metis Report’s recommendations. It didn’t offer automatic admission to students in the top 5-10 percent of students in elementary of middle schools. It didn’t, as far as I know, engage in out-and-out race-norming.

However, it did implement a selection device — the “peer group” concept — that reduced the number of successful applicants from schools with lots of White and Asian-American students and increased the number from schools with lots of Blacks and Latinos. It also effectively decreased the extent to which Black students must compete with Asian-American students for admission to magnet schools.

It is fair to infer that the County did this to address the “significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in the enrollment and acceptance rates to academically selective programs” identified by the Metis Report. It is fair to infer that, indeed, the Metis Report was commissioned to help the County come up with ways to address racial disparities.

I don’t believe any other inference is plausible.

Thus, because Montgomery County adopted the “peer group” criterion in order to favor certain sets of individuals based on their race and ethnicity, I believe the County is engaging in unlawful discrimination in its selection of students for the magnet programs in question.

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