Why wouldn’t an exam culture favor discriminated-against minorities?

The Supreme Court has spoken in Ricci v. Stefano, the New Haven firefighter’s case. An employer developed what it thought was a purely job-related exam and said that they would promote the people who did well on the test. The alternatives presumably would have been promotion based on seniority or popularity with supervisor (i.e., suckuptitude). When it transpired that some blacks and Hispanics whom the city had hoped to promote based on the exam failed to score well, the city tossed out the results. The Supreme Court has ordered the city to live by the test results and self-proclaimed advocates for blacks and Hispanics are broadcasting their displeasure.

Initially it seems reasonable that advocates for groups that did poorly on an exam would advocate against an exam culture. But thinking about it a bit more, I found myself surprised.

Suppose I am a member of Group A within society. The average manager thinks that members of Group A are incompetent and doesn’t want to hire anyone in Group A. Membership in Group A can be easily recognized in a face-to-face interview by skin color and therefore, unless nobody else has applied, no member of Group A is likely to get a job after a face-to-face interview.

An employer switches to using a written exam, graded by a computer program unaware of the group membership of test takers. The highest scoring test takers will be given jobs.

This should be a dream come true for me and the rest of Group A. To get a job or a promotion, all that I have to do is study for a written test. I don’t have to worry about my skin color anymore. If Group A has a particular dialect of English or funny accent that turns off employers, I am also freed from worry about how I speak.

If the belief is that Group A is being discriminated against because employers are prejudiced, one would think that any advocate for Group A would welcome a method of hiring or promoting that is blind to personal characteristics.

Suppose that all jobs in the U.S. were exam-based. We would not have had the election of 2004 in which John Kerry and George W. Bush competed for our top job. Neither of them did especially well on exams, as evidenced by their mediocre grades in college. Had ability to be President been judged by an impartial computer system rather than voters, it is unlikely that two white guys from Yale would have been the top contenders.

[Separately, has anyone seen any of the exam questions? A tremendous amount of journalistic ink has been spent on this lawsuit yet I have not seen any sample questions from the exam. Perhaps they were lifted from http://snltranscripts.jt.org/76/76rblackperspective.phtml, e.g.,

You have been invited over for cocktails by the officer of your trust fund. Cocktails begin at 4:30, but you must make an appearance at a 6:00 formal dinner at the Yacht Club. What do you do about dress?

A. Wear your blue-striped seersucker suit to cocktails and change into your tuxedo in the bathroom, apologizing to your host for the inconvenience.
B. Wear your tuxedo to cocktails, apologizing to your host for wearing a dinner jacket before 6:00 PM.
C. Walk to the subway at Columbus Circle and take the “A” Train uptown.”

Julian Bond, Black Perspective, Saturday Night Live, April 9, 1977]

[Update: The New York Times did a story on a Hispanic firefighter in New Haven who joined the lawsuit supporting exam-based promotion. He was unaware of his own score, though as it happens it was high enough to earn promotion. Last paragraph:

Gesturing toward his three young sons, Lieutenant Vargas explained why he had no regrets. “I want them to have a fair shake, to get a job on their merits and not because they’re Hispanic or they fill a quota,” he said. “What a lousy way to live.”


6 thoughts on “Why wouldn’t an exam culture favor discriminated-against minorities?

  1. While I am in general agreement with Ricci v. Stefano, basing employment/promotion only on a written test is a bad idea. There is book knowledge and on-the-job knowledge.

    In a fire, who would you want to try to save you? The guy who scored 100 on the qualification exam, but freezes up under pressure or the guy who scored a 50, but is willing to risk his life for you?

    There are many variables that go into a hiring/promotion process. Test-taking ability should only be one input into that process.

  2. As I understand it, the Supreme Court ruling wasn’t so much on the fairness of the test, or even the fairness of promoting by exams in general. Instead, it had to do with New Haven’s reasons for why they threw out the test – namely, that they feared drawing a discrimination lawsuit if they *kept* the test results. I think it was Kennedy who wrote in the majority ruling something to the effect of “fear of a lawsuit is not sufficient grounds to throw out test results.”

  3. My impression is that the questions are sealed allegedly because releasing them would invalidate the test by giving future test takers a leg up. Of course it could just mean that future test takers would know to look up which sheet controls what sail on the yacht.

    To reha’s question, I’m a computer geek and in my field it sure seems like the ability to graduate from college and actual competence are, at best, only roughly correlated. In some cases I think the correlation is negative. I’ve also worked in a highly physical field, as a professional whitewater guide, and I’ve seen some big heavy boats finessed by small people with excellent technique. It’s super hard to come up with an actual objective measure of competence, and given that government jobs are rife with the opportunity for nepotism and abuse I don’t have an alternative to testing.

  4. I haven’t seen anything from the actual test myself; but Steve Sailor links to what is apparently a representative basic firefighter exam: http://isteve.blogspot.com/2009/04/obama-administration-is-playing-with.html

    reha gur: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Of course an exam is not going to be 100% predictive of performance; nor would the more practical exams administered in the ‘examination centers’ which are more common. Nothing will be 100% predictive except the actual circumstance.

    But that doesn’t mean we have to be all wooly-headed and say oh no, these exam scores are meaningless because maybe the 100% guy will freeze up and the dunce who failed will have his heart in the right place. And maybe one day the high school dropout at your local McDonald’s will revolutionize particle physics.

    (And actually, I wonder if the exam might not be a bad reflection of what they have to do; if I understand this, these weren’t the guys putting on the suits and leading the vanguard into the flames, but the leadership – the guys who show up and start ordering everyone around. In that sort of role, would freezing up be such an issue?)

  5. New Haven spend into the six figures to have their test designed by experts to be bias free, something prior court decisions have required in cases like this.

  6. An ‘exam-culture’ may help minorities but in today’s political climate a ‘victim culture’ works a lot better. Look at universities. The left wing faculty will do anything to circumvent any racial discrimination laws like California’s Prop 209 to admit someone whose skin color is the right shade. Asians are the ones who suffer most from this crude racism but it assuages the faculty members’ liberal guilt in some weird way.

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