Is it legal to penalize top-performing Asian American students to help students of other ethnicities? Legal or not, it is happening all around the country. In February, a federal judge sided with the Pacific Legal Foundation and ruled that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County adopted a test-free admission process to discriminate against Asian American students.
Just a short distance away in Maryland, Asian American students have also been suffering discrimination in Montgomery County Public Schools since 2018.
To make more room for Black and Hispanic students, the Montgomery County Board of Education manipulated the admissions process of its four highly coveted magnet middle schools to guarantee that fewer Asian American students would be offered admissions.
The new admissions process includes peer grouping and local norming, meaning applicants are at a disadvantage if they live in a low-poverty area with many high-performing students.
Because Asian American students are clustered in 25 of MCPS’s low-poverty schools, the new process forces those students to compete against each other instead of competing against every MCPS student — with the purpose of altering the racial composition of magnet schools to include fewer Asian Americans and more students of other ethnic groups.
The school board’s admissions changes achieved their intended result. The number of Asian American students enrolled at all four magnet schools dropped from 2017 to 2021: from 58.9 percent to 24.3 percent at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School; from 64 percent to 44.4 percent at Roberto W. Clemente Middle School; from 39.3 percent to 35.4 percent at Takoma Park Middle School; and from 26.4 percent to 23.9 percent at Eastern Middle School.
More than a dozen Asian American students who scored between the 95th and 99th percentiles on the entrance exams (CogAT) and received top scores on state assessment tests were rejected.
To combat this overt racial discrimination, the Association for Education Fairness, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, filed a lawsuit against MCPS on behalf of the Asian American students.
The board adopted a racial balancing scheme that systemically excludes high-performing Asian American students. It was designed to cover up the government’s systematic failure at improving public education for low-income Black and Hispanic students.
From a legal perspective, a policy with discriminatory intent is unconstitutional even if it uses nonracial or seemingly race-neutral factors to achieve a racial result: It violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Also, from a social science perspective, a policy that pits one racial minority against other minorities is unacceptable.
Here is the cold and sad truth: Asian American students are being used as scapegoats for the serious and growing achievement gap problem that MCPS has avoided dealing with: The county is failing at educating many of its Black and Hispanic students.
For example, only 34.4 percent and 30.1 percent, respectively, of Black and Hispanic students between third and fifth grades passed state math exams in 2019. Meanwhile, the rates were 79.8 percent and 71.8 percent for Asian American and White students, respectively, despite that many Asian American students also come from families with modest means.
Though MCPS claims that lack of diversity at schools is the problem, there is little to no academic evidence that increasing racial diversity, especially in middle schools, helps students perform better in reading or math. Nor is it a good idea to enroll Black and Hispanic students into magnet schools where they might not succeed.
The focus should be instead on strengthening the educational quality of all local MCPS schools so that students of all colors can succeed.
Or even better, how about increasing the magnet school options so that more children can be admitted? Maryland is known for ranking near the bottom in the nation for its school choice, but Montgomery County can be a leader in driving change for the better.
In any case, the solution is not to water down the admissions standards for the district’s highest-performing schools and hard-working students, threatening these schools’ quality and reputation.
We all know that the ambitious children of Montgomery County deserve better. The Montgomery County school board must address its achievement gap problem without victimizing high-performing Asian American students.
This op-ed was originally published in The Washington Post on May 8, 2022.