Monday, June 29, 2009

Ricci Reversed

In a 5-4 decision today, SCOTUS decided that the city of New Haven acted inappropriately when the city threw out the results of a promotion test for firefighters when the African-American candidates did not score high enough to be eligible for promotion. The city feared the test was unfair (not intentionally, but perhaps by accident), but the Court said that they could only throw it out if they thought they would get sued, and could prove they thought they would lose in court. Kennedy, the new swing vote since O'Connor is gone, went with the conservative 4 this time.

When the appellate court upheld New Haven's right to throw out the test, they were acting on judicial precedent. This decision by SCOTUS could be called "legislating from the bench" since it breaks new ground and is said to be more broad than expected...but I think that term only applies to justices nominated by Democratic presidents.

I have taken courses in item writing and have written test questions for the national board licensing exam to become a registered nurse. The content of these exams is based on a national study of what RNs actually do in their jobs, so that the content matches the workplace expectations and knowledge requirements -- not some company's idea of what's important. Each question is carefully tested to make sure it is not misunderstood or a "gotcha" and that it is a fair question, directly related to successful practice.

Would be nice if firefighters could rely on the same type of exam testing and validation that RNs do. This is an awful decision -- New Haven did the right thing.

For more....
Dahlia Lithwick of Slate
SCOTUS opinion (PDF)
Jonathan Turley's blog
SCOTUS blog here is analysis re: Sotomayor, here is the SCOTUS wiki on the case, with analysis of the opinion to come


Nopartisan said...

Okay, so are we to presume that you have seen a copy of the FD test? Considering it is and has been sealed, that would be quite an accomplishment. How can you judge a tests merits when you have no clue as to what it consists of? I would have to assume given the fact that since 1973 the NHFD has been embroiled in discrimination lawsuits that the city would ensure the test would give them the results they wanted, it didn't so the city childishly "took their ball and went home". All anyone needs to judge the tests merits is to actually read the test. But lets cut right to the heart of it. If the NHFD test was set up the way you wanted it to be, (workplace expectations etc.)and the same results occured, WITHOUT a doubt the city would have done the same thing they pulled on the other test. THAT is why the SCOTUS did the right thing, the test was announced, time for studying was given, all applicants knew what the test would cover thus allowing them time to prepare. But first lets have the test at issue unsealed, I have wondered from the start of this why NH won't release the actual test. If the test IS biased then I am positive that NH would have used THAT as a criteria for not promoting anyone. But all along they have said that they were afraid of being sued because of the outcome. How any of us, any pundits, politicans any whatever can make any claim about fairness without seeing the test escapes me.

West Haven Bob said...

The whole issue would be moot if New Haven scraps the whole written test format, relying on "real-world" testing and oral examinations (both of which, incidentally, are fairer to minorities than the written).

I'm torn about this, because a cousin was one of the plaintiffs; however, the whole thing was a massive clusterfuck from the beginning.

I, for one, would not worry about the gender, race, sexual preference, etc., of the firefighter who has come to save me from a burning building; I'd be more concerned with ability.

Nopartisan said...

So black folks can't compete with whites on written tests? Again how can you pass any judgements on the test if you have not seen it? For all any one knows it could very well have been VERY relevent to the job. In fact on a Hardball show at the time the court was hearing the case, one of the guests was a lawyer for the NAACP and he had to admit that he had not seen the test, yet he was calling it unfair. In the future perhaps Nh should just give the test to those they want to promote, or just drop the whole charade of them wanting the best and changing the means of promotion to allow them to pick and choose who they want. But reallly the whole idea that blacks as a whole can't compete with whites or other ethnic groups on written tests is at best condescending.

West Haven Bob said...

@nopartisan -

Try to read the whole post before you arrive at your "don't bother me with facts my mind is made up" conclusions.

As I said, a member of my family was one of the plaintiffs in Ricci. Thus, I have extensive (second-hand) information on the test, even if I didn't see it myself.

My point stands: I haven't seen you, but you can be sure I've passed judgment.

Nopartisan said...

"Don't bother me with facts my mind is made up attitude"? What then would you call people who claim a test is biased without seeing it? I unlike others admit I don't know if the test is biased or not, I am only saying that people who claim it is have no clue as to what the test contained. NH sealed it,why? The one point you and others consistently miss is that the city has never claimed the test is biased, the test in and of itself has never been litigated, they were afraid they would be sued and tossed the results. Guess what? they were sued. Since you have some knowledge of the test, what about it leads you to a conclusion of bias? And this debate cuts both ways those who applaud the ruling have not seen it either, so all the debate is rather pointless until the test is unsealed. Then and only then will we be able to hopefully learn the motivation behind the decision NH made. FD officers have to make life and death decisions, did this test speak to knowledge for example of chemical reactions at a factory fire, lack of knowledge of what to use on a fire could lead to tragedy. In short what we need to know is did this test reflect what a firefighter officer needs to master to safely lead other firefighters in their duty? Untl we know how can anyone claim bias?

Nopartisan said...

Go on click on the story, click on the link for the majority opinion, and read it. Pay attention to how the test was developed, how minority input was over represented in the tests design to ensure fairness, and how 66% of the testers were minority. Also note the twisted logic and duplicity of the city in setting aside the tests. Note the fact that 50% of the black firefighters did pass the test which actually nulled the cities argument about fearing a lawsuit since a failure rate of 80% would have been required for such a lawsuit. It actually makes for some very interesting reading and shows that the details about this case are quite different than has been portrayed. So I think I see why NH sealed the test. Every commentator with an opinion about this case should be forced to read what actually went on before they poison public opinion with half truths, conjecture and outright dishonesty to pursue an agenda.

Kirby said...

I am basing my comments on this: "The consulting company that the city hired to write the exams based them on interviews with officers and the chief of the New Haven department, job questionnaires, and 1,200 pages of reading material." from the Ricci backgrounder post -- part 3. That is not the comprehensive analysis that I described.

Res ipsa -- nursing school graduates are not suing states for biased exams. Had the firefighters' exam been that kind of test, then it would better stand up to this type of examination.

In the end, that's what I want -- a well-designed test that has the science of exam construction behind it -- so any challenges could be easily rebutted by the quality of the test.