ACLU Sues Michigan Over Merit Scholarships
DETROIT — Calling the Michigan Merit Award system an “unconscionable use of public funds,” the American Civil Liberties Union here filed a lawsuit last month asking that the state be ordered to stop using a standardized test as the sole criteria for the scholarship.
The ACLU says awarding the $2,500 scholarships based on Michigan Education Assessment Program test scores discriminates against racial and ethnic minorities. Union officials say there are better ways to reward students.
“In looking at standardized tests alone, [the state is] doing two things wrong. First, they are using a test that was not created to measure achievement,” says Kary Moss, the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “The second thing is that they are using the test alone to make the [scholarship] decision. And test makers, [officials at] universities and the National Academy of Sciences say that test scores should not be used alone because they provide only a snapshot view and not a complete picture of the student.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of six students.
“The unconscionable use of public funds will be vigorously challenged in court,” says attorney Michael Pitt.
And Moss adds: “The consequence [of the Michigan standard] has led to a distribution of scholarships that disproportionately favors wealthy White students, and we believe a method that looks at multiple criteria will result in a more fair distribution.”
John Truscott, a spokesman for Gov. John Engler, says state officials aren’t worried about the lawsuit.
“They’re blaming the failure on the measurement rather than purely on the failure,” he says. “The problem there is the quality of education being delivered and not the test itself.”
The ACLU says the scholarships violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. The program also violates a portion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, union officials say.
The scholarships are awarded to students based on their scores on the state test. The money comes from Michigan’s share of the 1998 multistate tobacco settlement. The state Legislature approved the awards in 1999.
Students in poorer districts are at a disadvantage because those schools might not have the resources to prepare students for the test, while wealthier districts do, the ACLU says. Students don’t have to take the state test.
“The state is essentially punishing students for the schools they attend,” Moss says. “If they want to reward student achievers, they need to look at other factors.”
She suggests things such as a student’s grade-point average, class rank, financial need and extracurricular activities should be considered, not just state test scores.
“We are not trying to stop the program and we are not trying to take scholarships away from students who have already received them,” Moss says.
Plaintiff Anita White says she took the test for the scholarship but didn’t get the money. Now she can’t afford the school of her choice, Michigan State University. She plans to attend Central Michigan University instead.
“I feel it’s unjust,” says White, who had a 3.4 GPA at Belleville High School in western Wayne County. “A scholarship would have made a big difference in my choice of a college.”
A second plaintiff in the suit said she was ranked sixth in her class at Flint’s Beecher High School, had a 3.45 GPA and was involved in cheerleading and other activities, but didn’t score well on one of the four state tests.
“I feel that I should’ve got the scholarship because the money would’ve helped pay for my room and board, books, anything,” says Bianca Kelly, 17, who says she will be attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. “If (the schools) don’t care about my scores, then why should my scholarship be based on that?”
Truscott says using grade-point averages to award scholarships isn’t fair either.
“That is not a uniform standard. An ‘A’ in one school is not an ‘A’ in another,” Truscott says, adding that if a student does poorly on the tests, they can take them again.
To get the scholarship, students must score in the top two of four levels on every subject — math, science, reading and writing — or pass two levels and score in the top 25th percentile on the SAT or ACT. If they qualify, students get either $2,500 to attend a Michigan school or $1,000 to attend an out-of-state college or university.
— Black Issues Senior Writer Eric St. John contributed to this report.
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