Is a public school system in a leafy county straddling the Capital Beltway discriminating against Asian Americans? The feds next door are investigating in a case with national implications, and with good reason: The type of racial balancing that Montgomery County Public Schools is using may well be illegal.
No one questions that the changes MCPS put into effect in 2016 have led to a sharp decline in Asian-American admissions to a middle-school magnet program. In 2016–2017 the drop was 23 percent; the following year it was 20 percent. The numbers for whites, Hispanics, and blacks went up. That in itself should satisfy those who always insist that policies that have a disparate impact on members of an identity group are suspect per se, and need to be reassessed.
And these students and their parents, with the help of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, have something more substantial than mere impact on their side. Though the district insists its new approach to admissions is color-blind, there is considerable evidence that the effort was in reality an attempt at “race norming,” which is unfair and illegal.
The changes in the admissions process stem from the recommendations included in a 2016 report commissioned by the school system from the New York–based consulting agency Metis Associates. The report noted that the system “experienced significant increases in the number and diversity of students over the past 20 years.” Yet, Superintendent Larry Bowers was quoted as saying, the county had “created structural and systemic barriers that have prevented some of our students from full participation in an instructional program that meets their needs and pushes them to excel.”
In short, Hispanic, black, and low-income students were less likely to be selected.
So the system asked Metis to address “these barriers and the unintended consequences of the impact these program decisions have had on our achievement gap.” Metis recommended as remedies broadening “the definition of gifted to include non-cognitive measures” and “using group-specific norms that benchmark student performances against school peers with comparable backgrounds.”
MCPS responded with two major shifts. First, it invited to the qualifying cognitive-skills assessment all fifth-graders performing above grade level, rather than relying on parental requests and teacher recommendations. The number of test-takers tripled, making the selection process more democratic.
It was the second change that smacked of “group-specific norms”: Students could be disqualified if their home schools already included “a peer group” of 20 similarly gifted classmates. MCPS has portrayed this adjustment as a neutral way of deselecting kids who already have an enriched surrounding. It promised that higher-level courses would be added to their schools, something that parents complain has been limited or non-existent.
Worse, in light of the OCR investigation, this “peer group” approach looks like a fig leaf for something else. The peers at the children’s home schools are likely to come from the same race. What is happening looks a lot like race-norming.
That term refers to the practice of adjusting outcomes to account for the race or ethnicity of an applicant. In selecting people for school admission or employment, the selector would not admit, say, the top 5 percent of all candidates, but the top 5 percent in each racial silo.
Though it was used for decades in hiring, Congress outlawed the practice in 1991. Like the doctrine of disparate impact, race norming has been a darling of the Left. It also has its fans among conservatives, however. Their point is that, if progressives are intent on group proportionalism in all institutions, then it is far better to hire the best from each group, rather than just lowering standards across the board.
One can see their point, but race norming’s fans are wrong. It’s not just illegal; it stigmatizes the real achievements of the people in whose name it was carried out. It’s unfair, too, to those who scrimp and save money for tutoring, emphasize homework, stay married, and abstain from out-of-wedlock births, i.e., make the sacrifices required for their children to succeed.
And Asians can hardly be thought of as racially “privileged.” The Asian-American parents of MCPS complained bitterly for two years about the unfairness dealt to their children, but they were practically alone until the Office of Civil Rights notified them that it was bundling ten of their complaints into one investigation.
MCPS, like other places, is struggling with a very real racial achievement gap. Its refusal to face up to real cultural problems makes it thrash about in search for cures. The latest is an attempt to change school boundaries. The sooner the feds inform MCPS that it is on the wrong side of history, as the Left likes to say, the better.
This piece originally appeared in the National Review