A federal judge in New York has struck down a test used by New York City to vet potential teachers, finding the test of knowledge illegally discriminated against racial minorities due to their lower scores.

At first glance, the city’s second Liberal Arts and Science Test (LAST-2) seems fairly innocuous. Unlike the unfair literacy tests of Jim Crow, LAST-2 (which was discontinued in 2012) was given to every teaching candidate in New York, and was simply a means to ensuring that ever teacher has a basic high school-level understanding of both the liberal arts and the sciences.

One sample question from the test asked prospective educators to identify the mathematical principle of a linear relationship when given four examples. Another asked them to read four passages from the Constitution and identify which illustrates the notion of checks and balances. In addition to factual recall, the test also checked basic academic skills, such as reading comprehension and the ability to read basic charts and graphs.

Nevertheless, this apparently neutral subject matter contained an insidious kernel of racism, because Hispanic and black applicants had a rate of passing that was respectively 54% and 75% the success rate of white candidates.

Once their higher failure rate was established, the burden shifted to New York to prove that LAST-2 measured skills that were essential for teachers and therefore was justified in having a racially unequal outcome. While it might seem obvious that possessing basic subject knowledge is a key skill for a teacher, District Judge Kimba Wood said the state hadn’t met that burden.

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