Civil Rights Groups Sue Over Race Bias in Michigan Merit Scholarship Program

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
June 27, 2000 12:00 am

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DETROIT, MI -- By relying on an inappropriate test to award state college scholarships, Michigan is denying deserving students whose race, ethnicity, and educational disadvantages are factors in lower test scores, a coalition of civil rights organizations charged today in a federal lawsuit.

The coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties of Michigan, represents five graduating seniors and the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP. They are calling for the State of Michigan to revise its selection criteria, allowing for a fairer method that considers grade point average and other measures of achievement.

"The State of Michigan has a chance here to fix or compensate for some of the problems in our educational system," said Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. "Instead, officials are making it worse by using a selection criteria that everyone knows will help least those who need it the most."

Today's lawsuit is only the second such action in the nation challenging the use of standardized tests as the sole criterion for making scholarship awards, Moss noted.

Moss said the coalition is seeking an injunction requiring the state to immediately discontinue use of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) High School Test as the sole criterion for awarding Michigan Merit Award Scholarships. Others in the coalition are the state NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

The lawsuit charges that the use of MEAP test scores discriminates against high school students on the basis of race, ethnicity, and educational disadvantage. The MEAP test has never been validated as a means of assessing individual student achievement but rather was designed to measure school performance.

"By relying on the MEAP test to award scholarships, the state of Michigan is misusing the test," Moss said. "All students should be judged fairly, by looking at the range of their accomplishments as individuals, in the same way that college and universities evaluate applicants."

While 34 percent of eligible white students qualified for scholarships in 1999, only 7 percent of African American students, 20 percent of Hispanic students, and 19 percent of Native American students taking all four MEAP tests qualified.

That is, 1 in 3 white test takers received a scholarship, whereas only 1 in 14 African American test takers, 1 in 5 Hispanic test takers, and 1 in 5 Native American test takers received a scholarship. Disparities also occurred among the state's school districts, with students of wealthy suburban school districts consistently reporting higher test scores than those in large urban or smaller rural districts.

The first lawsuit to bring such charges, Sharif v. New York State, challenged New York's practice of using the Scholastic Achievement Test scores to grant the prestigious Regents and Empire awards. A federal court agreed that the practice violated Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because it had a discriminatory effect on girls and directed the state to devise a non- discriminatory method of selection.

In today's case, White v. Engler, the groups are charging that the selection process violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal funding from engaging in race discrimination, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The groups are asking a federal district court to order the State to discontinue use of the MEAP test to award merit scholarships, adopt new procedures for selection, and reevaluate the scholarship eligibility of those students denied scholarships this year.

They emphasized that they are not asking for those students who have been announced as winners to lose those scholarships.

Anita White, who lives in Ypsilanti, attends Belleville High School, and was denied a merit scholarship, said that she wants all kids who deserve it to get scholarships to attend college.

"A scholarship would have made a big difference in my choice of a college," said Ms. White. She has a grade point average of 3.4, ranked 53 out of a class of 345, is a member of the National Honor Society, and will be attending Central Michigan University in the fall.

According to Donald E. Heller, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Michigan, and an expert witness in the case, "The evidence is clear that the Michigan Merit Award Scholarship program will do little to further the legislation's stated goal of increasing access to higher education in Michigan."

"Based on what we know from existing research," he added, "a great number of these awards are likely to go to students who will attend college anyway. Many of these students come from relatively wealthy school districts that already send a large percentage of their high school graduates on to college."

The Michigan Merit Award Scholarship Program was created by the Legislature in 1999 and is funded by the state's share of revenues from the multi-state settlement agreement with tobacco manufacturers. Scholarship awards of $2,500 are available to graduating seniors attending in-state colleges, and $1,000 to students attending out-of-state colleges. Winners are selected on the basis of obtaining minimum scores on the MEAP test. The first Michigan Merit Award Scholarships were based on the MEAP High School Tests administered in Spring 1999; scholarship awards were announced last month for students who will begin their post-secondary education in the Fall of 2000.

The students in the case are represented by Kary Moss, Executive Director, and Michael Steinberg, Legal Director, of the ACLU of Michigan; Leonard Mungo, of the Michigan State Conference of the NAACP; Pat Mendoza and Marta Delgado of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund; Michael Pitt, Peggy Goldberg Pitt, and Judy Martin, as Cooperating Attorneys for the ACLU of Michigan, and Adele P. Kimmel of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, P.C.

Copies of the complaint will be available on the ACLU of Michigan Web site at

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