A federal judge is questioning whether a new exam for aspiring teachers in New York is discriminatory against minorities, a case that could derail the state’s efforts to create a more rigorous set of tests for entry into the profession.
Black and Hispanic applicants have been passing one of the exams, intended to measure reading and writing skills, at lower rates than white candidates, prompting concerns of decreased diversity in the teaching ranks.
The judge, Kimba M. Wood of Federal District Court in Manhattan, has asked the state for extensive documentation on the development of the test, which was first given during the 2013-14 school year.
The request came as part of a long-running case brought in 1996 by black and Hispanic teachers against New York City. In 2012, Judge Wood ruled that an older state-certification test, which was intended to measure teachers’ knowledge of the liberal arts and science, was racially discriminatory.
Although compensation has not yet been awarded, the city is expected to have to pay back wages to several thousand teachers who were demoted to being substitutes from the early 1990s to 2004, or were never hired as full-time teachers because they did not pass the older test.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Joshua Sohn, a partner at Mishcon de Reya New York, said that he did not know if the new test, the Academic Literacy Skills Test, was discriminatory. But, he said, given the fact that blacks and Hispanics are passing the test at lower levels than whites, “the court has an obligation to ensure that the historical discrimination is not continuing.”
The State Education Department declined to comment on the judge’s request, citing the pending litigation.
The literacy test is the most challenging of four examsintroduced in the 2013-14 school year, as part of an effort to raise the caliber of teachers and teacher training programs. Over all, the number of aspiring teachers passing the four required tests dropped by 20 percent from previous years. Students may retake tests they failed.
Under a provision in the new state budget, any graduate-level teacher training program that has fewer than 50 percent of its students pass each certification exam for three consecutive years will not be able to admit new students.
The earlier test that Judge Wood ruled was discriminatory, the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test, was used until 2004. She said that because the minority candidates were failing that test in greater numbers, the burden was on public officials to prove the test served a valid purpose. In similar rulings, judges around the country have thrown out written exams for firefighters and police officers, ruling they were not relevant to the tasks they would perform.
Judge Wood ruled that officials had not shown that the material on the test “accurately measured the minimum knowledge about the liberal arts and sciences that teachers need to be competent.”
She is also expected to rule soon on whether a replacement test with the same name, which was in use from 2004 to 2013, was also discriminatory. If she decides that it was, thousands of additional people who failed the test during that time and thus were barred from full-time teaching positions could make claims against the city for back pay and other benefits. A testing expert appointed by the court submitted a report in February that concluded the state had not proved the test was relevant.
The new literacy test that is now under scrutiny by Judge Wood “requires the teacher to demonstrate an understanding of evidence found in texts and uses cogent reasoning to analyze and synthesize ideas,” according to the State Education Department. “The teacher produces complex and nuanced writing by choosing words, information, and structure deliberately for a given task, purpose, and audience.”
Sample questions provided by the state include a passage about Gertrude Stein’s life in Paris, followed by questions about the passage, and two passages about federal energy policy that the test-taker is asked to analyze in short written responses.
Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates tougher certification requirements, said the judge’s questioning of the test was troubling. “I want to ask Judge Wood,” Ms. Walsh said, “would she be willing to have any of these teachers teach her own children or grandchildren, and I would bet my life she’d say no.”
“They’re saying, at the risk of not appearing racist, or at the risk of having to make a hard call against adults, I’m going to sacrifice the best needs of kids,” she added.
The plaintiffs in the case originally sued both the State Education Department and the city’s Board of Education. But an appeals court dismissed the claims against the state, on the grounds that the state was not the teachers’ employer. That has left the city as the sole defendant, even though the city was following state law.
The State Education Department on Tuesday would not release statistics showing passing rates by ethnicity, but officials have acknowledged that minority teaching candidates have not done as well as white candidates on the new test.
The racial makeup of the city’s teaching force has been a concern for years. While 41 percent of students in public schools are Hispanic and 25 percent are black, 60 percent of teachers are white, according to the city’s Education Department. Eighteen percent of teachers are black, and 15 percent are Hispanic.
Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, declined to put a figure on the city’s potential liability from the case.
“The courts have determined that the first LAST violated Title VII,” Mr. Paolucci wrote in an email, referring to the federal prohibition on employment discrimination. “We’re waiting for the court’s opinion on LAST2,” he said, using shorthand for the replacement test that was used from 2004 to 2013.