2009-08-07 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Prove To Me That The Firefighter Test Is Biased
Commentary By Howard Schwach

I am tired of hearing that a test has to be biased if too many minorities fail that test. Perhaps that is because I have made up too many tests and proctored many more.

For a time, I was one of the New York City teachers who traveled to Albany every other year to write questions for the New York State American History Regents and for its companion Regents Competency Test.

For many years, I was the editor for the special education division's Curriculum Development Unit. In that capacity, I wrote and edited lots of curriculum "cookbooks" that included tests for the students to take after each unit.

I have probably developed hundreds of tests and written thousands of test questions over my 33 years in the school system and I can't think of one that was developed with the idea of failing some students and passing others. I'm not even sure that such a test can be developed, because each racial or ethnic group has members with a wide range of academic skills and abilities.

Yet, we keep getting liberal judges like Nick Garaufis who rule that a test must be biased if too many black or Hispanic candidates fail.

State laws mandate that civil service exams must be job related and must give all racial and ethnic groups an equal chance at passing the test and getting a job.

Garaufus ruled that the fact that so many more white candidates than black passed the firefighter test proved that the test is biased.

Didn't he hear about the recent Supreme Court decision that debunked that idea, as well it should.

I want to know how the test is biased. I don't want to play the numbers game that "proves" bias statistically.

Show me the questions. Prove to me as an old test-maker that the questions are skewed so that white candidates can answer them, but black and Hispanic candidates can't.

Let's look at the city test. The toughest part, candidates will tell you, is the physical test that requires would-be firefighters to drag or carry a dummy up a set of stairs, to drag it a certain distance in a set period of time and to pull hose up a ladder in a required time period. It is a very difficult test, and people have actually died trying to pass.

Now, look at the NBA, the NFL and professional boxing and tell me that white people have a physical edge on black people when it comes to physical feats. Nobody can argue that the physical test is not job related.

There is a written part as well, and opponents of the test say that it is really a test of reading comprehension. They argue that firefighters don't really have to rely on reading, because most of their communication is verbal.

Now, prove to me that a test of reading comprehension is per se better for white candidates than it is for blacks and Hispanics.

Are the test opponents saying that black people and minorities can't read and it doesn't matter?

I don't think that's an argument that anybody really wants to make.

Here are a few sample questions from a recent New York City test. See for yourself if they are simply "reading comprehension" questions or if they are really job-related.

Question 1:

Use the following information to answer Question 1:

Material that falls into the Poison A Category has a white label and includes Hydrogen Cyanide and Nitrogen Dioxide. These may be in solid, gas or liquid form.

Material that falls into the Explosive C Category has an orange label and includes Fireworks and small arms ammunition and Pyrolectnics, usually in small containers of explosive material. It also includes TNT and dynamite as well as high explosives.

Material that falls into the (-W-) Category has a red, white and blue label and includes sodium, calcium and carbide, as well as water reactive flammable solids.

Material that falls into the Explosive B Category has an orange label and includes gunpowder, low explosives and other products that ignite easily and burn quickly.

1. At the scene of an overturned

semi-tractor trailer, the following materials were identified: One container of sodium, two cases of gunpowder, two drums of carbide, two cylinders of hydrogen cyanide, two cylinders of nitrogen dioxide, three cases of fireworks, three boxes of small arms ammunition, and five cases of dynamite. Each of the containers were identified with a separate color code/label. The color/label code that appeared most often was which of the following:
a. White (Poison A)
b. Orange (Explosive C)
c. Orange
d. Red, white and blue.
2. Firefighter Kent has come

across a victim at the scene of a building collapse. The victim is laying on the floor, unable to move. When Firefighter Kent asks, "can you hear me?" the victim nods yes and groans. At this point, Firefighter Kent should:
a. take no further CPR steps
b. check if the person is breath
c. administer four quick breaths
d. check the carotid artery for
a pulse.

Decide of yourself whether or not those two questions are simply "reading comprehension" questions that are unfair to black and Hispanic candidates, or if they are job related. I think that I already know what you are going to say.

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