As school-reform effort gathers steam, schools that are underperforming according to state and national standardized tests will face either reform or elimination. Parents whose children attend those schools and who like them (despite their poor performance) will almost invariably express their frustration.
While it is true that a school’s performance should not be measured solely by the students’ performance on standardized tests, we should resist the urge to reject the examination results. It may be lamentable that teachers find themselves “teaching to the test”, but the ability to succeed in a number of desirable careers requires that candidates master this skill.
And yet there is a growing resistance to examinations that goes beyond academic considerations and the outcome of the struggle may have a serious impact on public safety.
Readers should recall the infamous case of nineteen firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut, who sued the city after their successful scores were thrown out on an examination that qualified them for promotion. Because the city had a predetermined ethnic quota for promotions that it wanted to fill, and because too few minority candidates passed the test, the city decided to ignore the results of the test, and the individuals who passed the exam were denied their promotions. The issue eventually went before the United States Supreme Court in Ricci vs. DeStefano last year (2009). The firefighters won, and the city was forced to accept the test results.
But the issue has really not been resolved. The Chicago Police Department, suffering from a severe shortage of new officers and wanting to meet yet another ethnic quota, recently announced that it may scrap its entrance exam in order to give minorities a better chance of wearing a badge. Candidates will simply need to meet minimum education and residency requirements—making Chicago one of very few major cities with such low standards. Brad Woods, who formerly ran the Personnel Division under the Chicago Police Superintendent, voiced his concern that “a background check and a psych [exam] alone will not eliminate some people who should not be there. When you lower your quality, you will get poor police service and more complaints. ... Whenever you make it easier to be the police, you're doing the citizens and the Police Department a disservice."
The response by Fraternal Order of Police President Mark Donahue was even graver: The proposal “sounds too stupid to be true.”
How did Chicago get to this point?
A previous practice of “race-norming” the examination was deemed unconstitutional and was abandoned. Take a moment to think about that: examination results for police candidates were altered in order to make up for a perceived disadvantage for minorities.
Although the intent may seem noble, one must barely scratch the surface for the implications and see how dangerous this trend is. Would you feel that an officer who was unable to read and comprehend legal materials well enough to pass an entrance exam is competent to make decisions that may deprive you of your liberty—or life?
How much confidence can you have that this same officer would be able to write a police report that will stand up under the inevitable legal scrutiny that is guaranteed to follow every arrest of a criminal?
Expand the concept further: What if lawyers no longer had to pass the Bar Exam before they could attempt to defend you against charges trumped up by that same officer who was incapable of passing a Police Academy entrance exam?
What about Doctors? Pilots? Teachers? All of them must pass rigorous examinations before being allowed to practice their craft.
The difficulties that local fire and police departments are currently facing and that result in a disproportionately low number of minorities serving their own communities had their origins in our failing school systems.
If it is true (and statistics support the notion) that some ethnic groups have greater difficulty with entrance and placement exams than others, then it seems logical that what we need is greater emphasis on providing the skills necessary to pass exams to our minorities, not less. We should not dismiss standardized test scores or look for alternative assessment methods (such as “Portfolios”, as has been suggested by some “Education Experts”), because the long-term impact of such lowered standards will ultimately result in a public depending upon unqualified professionals.
Public safety demands that we solve this problem and not run from it.