By CAROLYN FEIBEL
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Feb. 5, 2009, 12:31PM
Seven black firefighters are suing the city, contending that the Houston Fire Department’s test for officer promotions adversely affects blacks.
“This is systemic discrimination,” said the firefighters’ attorney, Dennis Thompson. “Selection rates for African-Americans are abysmally smaller than for white candidates.”
City Council on Wednesday delayed consideration of a request by the city attorney’s office to spend up to $197,000 on an outside law firm to defend the city against the federal lawsuit, which was filed in August. The council is expected to take up the request next week.
Firefighters trying to attain the rank of captain and above in the Houston Fire Department must take a 100-question multiple-choice test. Numerous studies show that blacks as a group do less well on high-stakes tests, Thompson said. He said fire departments should use cognitive tests only as a pass-fail benchmark and also should focus on performance exercises and other criteria.
“We don’t do as well on these multiple-choice tests,” said Capt. Otis Jordan, president of the Houston Black Firefighters Association. Jordan and the HBFA are not part of the suit. “I compare fighting a fire, riding an apparatus, to playing football. Your best athlete might not be the straight-A student.”
HFD has about 4,200 firefighters and paramedics. Roughly 700 are black, Jordan said.
Senior Assistant City Attorney Timothy Higley declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit, but he said the case was complex.
“It’s all about the testing system in the Fire Department, so it’s going to require quite a bit of analysis,” Higley said. “Analysis about the validity of the testing program (and) whether the testing program is valid in the sense that it tests people for what is necessary in order to be (an officer).”
Kevin Michael Foster, an education anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, agreed that research has demonstrated a test score gap between blacks and whites. There are several theories about why, but a primary explanation has to do with minority students disproportionately receiving inferior educations compared to whites, he said.
“If you are African-American, there is a greater likelihood that throughout your academic career you have been taught by teachers of less experience, you have been taught in settings of low-performing schools,” Foster said.
During standardized tests, minorities are also vulnerable to performance anxieties that stem from cultural stereotypes, Foster said. The result, he said, is that historically marginalized groups often do worse on tests, especially “high stakes” tests that affect one’s livelihood or future life path.
System adjusted in 2005
While officer promotions once heavily emphasized the written test, HFD’s system was adjusted in 2005 as part of a collective bargaining agreement, said Jeffrey Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341. There has been only one testing cycle since the change, he added.
The new system ranks candidates based on a 122-point system: 100 points possible from the multiple-choice test, and other points awarded based on seniority, college or graduate education, and level of state fire certification. When vacancies occur, candidates are promoted from the top of the list. Promotions in the lower ranks still use the old system of 100 points for a written test and 10 points for seniority, for a maximum of 110, according to Assistant Fire Chief Bill Barry.
The lawsuit seeks promotions to captain or senior captain for the plaintiffs, back pay and damages.