2021 | Schools

MCPS files to dismiss magnet admissions lawsuit

District says pandemic changed process, making federal challenge moot

The Montgomery County Board of Education has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging its admissions procedures for middle school magnet programs. The district says the complaint is not relevant because processes changed during the coronavirus pandemic.

In September, a Montgomery County nonprofit, the Association for Education Fairness, filed the federal lawsuit, alleging MCPS discriminates against Asian students when making admissions decisions for its magnet programs.

The group, made up mostly of Asian parents, argued that recent changes to the admissions process for MCPS’ 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.”

They point to a change to procedures made in 2017 that established a new consideration when selecting students for magnet programs: how many students from their home schools are admitted to special “gifted” programs.

Students are considered less favorably for a seat if there are 20 or more gifted classmates 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, but 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 noncognitive measures in admissions decisions, including “motivation and persistence.” Also, rather than having parents initiate the selection process, MCPS began universal screening for admission.

The changes came after a consultant group issued a report that showed disparities in enrollment and acceptance rates at the four magnet (gifted and talented) programs, with white and Asian students admitted at greater rates than their peers.

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 its motion to dismiss the lawsuit, MCPS wrote that “for reasons entirely unrelated to this lawsuit … the challenged procedure no longer exists.”

In December, MCPS “fundamentally altered” how it screens and selects students for its programs. The new process, like the previous processes, MCPS wrote, is “race-blind and based on multiple measures,” but is “substantially different from the old process in several critical aspects.”

MCPS stopped administering the test used to identify “highly able” students and implemented a lottery, or random selection, into its process, the filing says.

“In light of these changes to the screening and selection process, the old process Plaintiff challenges no longer exists,” MCPS wrote.

In March 2019, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into allegations similar to the ones raised the lawsuit.

The Washington Post reported at the time that federal officials received 10 complaints raising concerns about the magnet program.

The Office of Civil Rights website lists the investigation as still open. A spokesperson declined to comment last week.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com