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Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as ACLU Suit Says Mich. Scholarships Penalize Nonwhite Students

ACLU Suit Says Mich. Scholarships Penalize Nonwhite Students

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The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged Michigan's new college- scholarship program on the grounds that using a state test alone to make the awards discriminates against poor and minority students.

The suit, filed in federal court in Detroit on June 27, charges that thousands of scholarships being distributed in the first round of the program this year violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the U.S. Constitution.

The ACLU of Michigan—joined in the suit by the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Washington-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice—wants the state to take into account more factors than performance on the 11th grade Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests in awarding the scholarships.

The suit asks the judge to order a revision in the criteria for selecting scholarship winners, such as the inclusion of grade point averages, as well as a re-evaluation of students denied scholarships this year. The one- time grants are worth $2,500 to students attending public postsecondary institutions in Michigan.

The groups filed the suit on behalf of five high school graduates, all members of minority groups, who did not earn passing scores on the reading, writing, mathematics, and science exams that make up the voluntary state exam.

"We are not asking the state to stop the scholarship program," said Kary Moss, the executive director of the Michigan ACLU. "But the program they put into place is not getting the job done right."

Schools Blamed

The ACLU claims that students attending low-performing schools do not have a fair chance to excel on the exam, which was devised not to measure student achievement but to gauge how well schools were meeting state standards.

But the official who oversees the administration of the test and the scholarship program, state Treasurer Mark Murray, defended the test as nondiscriminatory in content. He added that, over the long haul, it would raise achievement and make low-performing schools better as students and their parents pressed for their share of the scholarships.

"It sends a clear, simple, effective message ... that performance pays," Mr. Murray said.

Michigan is the only state to base a scholarship program exclusively on test scores, and the outcome of this suit could set a precedent for other states seeking to provide incentives for high school students to knuckle down, especially on state tests. A measure passed by the California legislature last week also would create awards linked to state tests, but it requires that each school's top scorers, as well as those who meet a statewide cutoff, receive the grants.

A decade ago, a federal judge forbade New York state officials to use SAT scores in awarding state scholarships, after the ACLU argued that the college-entrance tests discriminated against girls.

Donald E. Heller, an education professor at the University of Michigan who has been studying the scholarship program and supports the suit, said his figures from last year's tests, before the awards kicked in, indicate that white students may be as much as five times more likely to qualify for a scholarship than black students.

"That's a huge disparate impact," he said, adding that the program increases access to college "only minimally" since the vast majority of students getting the scholarships are headed to college anyway.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 7

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