This story was updated at 4 p.m. Aug. 1, 2022, to include a comment from MCPS.
After nearly two years of legal battles, a federal lawsuit challenging Montgomery County Public Schools’ admissions procedures for magnet programs was dismissed on Friday.
In September 2020, the Association for Education Fairness — a local organization of mostly Asian parents, according to court documents — argued that 2017 changes to the admissions process to four middle school magnet programs were “targeted to reduce the percentage of Asian American students who enroll … with the ultimate goal of racially balancing these schools according to the racial demographics of Montgomery County,” court documents say.
The group originally said the changes, implemented in 2017, violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which requires jurisdictions to treat all individuals in similar circumstances equally.
Prior to the 2021-22 school year, MCPS again revised its magnet admissions process in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The group then amended its complaint to address the latest changes, but still argued the process was discriminatory against Asian students.
In a memorandum Friday, federal district court judge Paula Xinis wrote “no facts give rise to the inference that the Pandemic Plan was implemented with discriminatory intent.”
She added: “COVID-19 clearly necessitated new and innovative responses in every facet of public education. It thus makes little sense to attribute the COVID-19 inspired changes to the magnet program as somehow nefarious when the entire world needed to pivot quickly, and in all respects, to cope with the pandemic.”
In an emailed statement Monday afternoon, MCPS spokesman Chris Cram said the district is “pleased” with the court’s decision.
“The Court correctly found that MCPS has fully complied with the law. As the Court explained, MCPS’s maintains a ‘neutral admissions process that MCPS has applied evenhandedly,’ ” Cram wrote. “Additionally, as the Court also noted, MCPS developed its current admission’s process through an open and transparent process, in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The 2017 changes to admissions procedures came after a report to the school board in 2016 found disparities in enrollment and acceptance rates at the four magnet programs, with white and Asian students admitted at greater rates than their peers. The programs are at Roberto Clemente Middle, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle, Takoma Park Middle and Eastern Middle.
In the 2013-14 school year, the programs’ enrollment was 47% white, 34% Asian, 8% Black and 4% Hispanic, according to the report.
In response, the consultants who conducted the report recommended a slate of changes to the admissions process, including implementing a new consideration: how many students from their home schools are admitted to special programs.
Students were considered less favorably for a seat if they had 20 or more classmates designated as gifted at their home schools. District officials have said students at a school with a large population of advanced students are better suited to work together there, whereas advanced students who don’t have similarly skilled classmates at their school have a greater need for a magnet program.
The report also recommended considering non-cognitive measures in admissions decisions, including “motivation and persistence.” Also, rather than having parents initiate the selection process by applying to the programs, MCPS began universal screening for admission.
The Association for Education Fairness wrote in its lawsuit that, while Black and Hispanic students have “benefited from the changes,” Asian students have lost “more than a fifth of the seats at each program” since the changes took effect in 2017.
In 2020, following the start of the pandemic, MCPS again changed its admissions process because testing could not be done in person and if administered remotely, it would be difficult to ensure the integrity of the results.
Instead, MCPS now screens all fifth grade students for placement in an “eligibility pool,” according to court documents.
Any student who received an “A” grade in the relevant subjects, performed above grade level in reading in fourth grade, and received a score at or above the 85th percentile in the MAP-Reading or MAP-Math assessments is placed in the pool. Then a lottery system is used to determine who is admitted to the magnet programs.
MCPS announced in September 2021 that it would keep the lottery system “for the foreseeable future,” according to court records.
Data included in court documents show that Asian students represented about 26% of all admissions to magnet programs in the 2021-22 school year, and about 15% of total applicants.
In her memorandum dismissing the lawsuit, Xinis wrote: “… the Court cannot see how the Pandemic Plan visited a disproportionate burden on Asian American students when the percentage of admitted Asian American students so substantially outpaces the percentage representation among all applicants.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org