Montgomery County Public Schools is Maryland’s largest public school district and one of the best in the state, with a robust magnet program for gifted and talented students. The district recently changed its admissions criteria for magnet programs at four middle schools ostensibly to make the programs more “equitable.” But the changes have created nearly impossible admissions criteria for many of the district’s highest-performing Asian American students and a sharp decline in their admissions while every other racial group has seen an uptick. Now, parents are fighting back with a federal lawsuit challenging the district’s unlawful discrimination against Asian American students.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is Maryland’s largest public school district, the 14th largest district in the country, and one of the best public school districts in the state. The district runs a robust magnet program for gifted and talented students at all grade levels, including highly competitive programs at four middle schools (two are humanities-driven and two focus on STEM instruction). Admission to one of these schools can be a tremendous leg up for academically gifted students without the means to attend expensive private schools.
The admissions process for these magnet middle schools has historically been race-blind. In 2015, MCPS hired Metis, a national consulting firm, to study the district’s academic programs and recommend ways to make them more “equitable”—that is, fix a perceived racial imbalance at magnet schools. The district used the firm’s findings to devise new admissions criteria to achieve a new racial balance using seemingly race-neutral factors.
Two changes are effectively denying admission to the highest-scoring Asian American children.
Under the new rules, if a student has a group of “academic peers” at their home middle school, that factor weighs against them in the magnet admissions process. Students with just 20 similarly high-achieving peers in their schools are disadvantaged in magnet admissions. This disproportionately affects the district’s Asian American students, who attend only a handful of high-performing elementary schools.
In addition, the new rules norm the admissions test the Cognitive Abilities Test according to the socioeconomic status of the student’s elementary school. The local norming of the Cognitive Abilities Test scores means students compete with other students from schools with similar poverty levels. This also results in fewer Asian American students gaining admission, as they are clustered in low-poverty schools.
Yet how the new rules work exactly is unclear. The district has not published the criteria for how these weighted factors work. Parents have been left in the dark about how these changes might affect their children.
After the Metis report was published, the number of Asian American students admitted to magnet schools dropped. In 2017, the year before the new process started, admissions of Asian American students dropped by 23 percent. With the new admissions program in place in 2018, admissions dropped by another 20 percent, while every other racial group—including Caucasians—has seen an uptick.
MCPS cannot unfairly target one racial group to achieve their preferred racial balance. School policies that intend to—and do—disadvantage a particular racial group violate the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.
The Association for Education Fairness, or AFEF, is a group of mostly Asian American parents who have worked hard to get their children the best education possible. Instead, they’re seeing their children shut out of the middle school magnet program. Facing clear racial discrimination in their own school districts, AFEF is fighting back with a federal lawsuit challenging MCPS’ unlawful discrimination against Asian American students.