Federal officials are investigating allegations of discrimination against Asian American students in a suburban school system in Maryland where parents have complained that race was unlawfully used as a factor in magnet program admissions.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights notified families it had taken up the case in March, months after a spate of complaints was filed against Montgomery County school officials.
Parent leaders involved in the action allege that the school system — the state’s largest — discriminated against Asian American students while seeking greater racial balance in two sought-after middle school magnet programs.
They say the number of Asian American students invited into the programs fell 23 percent from 2016 to 2017, amid a wave of attention to diversity issues, and then dropped by 20 percent the next year after a new screening and selection process took effect.
Federal officials received 10 complaints raising similar concerns, which have been incorporated into one case, federal officials said in letters to parents.
“They have come up with an admissions process that has drastically reduced the chances that an Asian American student will be admitted,” said Siva Anantham, a father of three from Bethesda who submitted a 26-page request asking for federal action on behalf of Asian American families across the school system.
Anantham alleged that conscious or subconscious bias affected the process as the school system sought diversity, and pointed out that the number of white students increased over the two-year period. He took issue with a new consideration: the home school of magnet applicants.
Students are viewed less favorably for a magnet seat if they have a peer group of 20 or more similarly gifted classmates at their home schools. The idea is that students who have such a peer group at school can come together for advanced classes, whereas gifted students who don’t have academic peers at their schools may especially need a magnet program.
Anantham and others call the factor “a proxy for race,” saying Asian American students are more likely to be from the middle schools with these peer groups and that only Asian Americans saw a decline.
The allegations come as the Trump administration has shown skepticism of affirmative action in education. Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center landed in the spotlight this month for agreeing to stop considering race in medical school admissions.
Montgomery officials reject the allegations of discrimination, saying they have worked to improve access and opportunity for all.
“We have a process that includes everyone,” said Derek Turner, spokesman for the system, calling the selection process for the magnet programs name blind and race blind.
Turner said the decline in Asian American students is a result of a much larger and more diverse applicant pool and that in one of the years referenced, fewer Asian American students applied.
“Race plays no factor in the selection of students,” he said.
An Education Department spokesman confirmed that officials opened an investigation in mid-March of possible discrimination against Asian Americans in admissions in Montgomery. No details could be provided, he said.
In a March 13 letter to Anantham, the Office for Civil Rights said it will investigate whether the school system engaged in “purposeful racial discrimination by adopting a universal selection process to intentionally exclude Asian and Asian American students from its magnet middle schools.”
The letter said the investigation “in no way” suggests it has decided the merits of the allegations.
Asian American parents in Montgomery say their concerns date to 2016, after the release of a report showing black and Hispanic students were less likely than whites and Asians to be chosen for a number of selective academic programs and to enroll in them. The study suggested improving early talent development and changing the selection process.
Alex Zhong, a father of three from Silver Spring, said the school system has not been transparent about how it now decides who qualifies for magnet programs. “It’s a black box,” he said. His daughter was turned down in 2018, he said, despite academic successes that included a 98 percent composite score on an admissions-related test.
“It’s really hard to understand why my child’s academic performance was so good, outstanding, and at the same time she was rejected; she was not making the wait list,” said Zhong, who said he appealed three times at one school and twice at another before succeeding.
As he encountered other Asian American parents with similar disappointments, he co-founded a group — the Association for Education Fairness — to advocate on the issue. Several dozen parents are core members and several hundred have voiced support, he said.
The programs at issue in recent complaints are a math-science magnet at Takoma Park Middle School and a humanities magnet at Eastern Middle School — programs with far more demand than capacity. In 2018, 279 students were invited, data shows.
“The simple issue is whether we should consider race or not,” said Zhong, who said he and some other parents were partly inspired by the 2014 lawsuit filed against Harvard University, which is accused of discriminating against Asian American applicants. The case awaits a judge’s decision.
In Montgomery, Asian American students represent 14 percent of the student body in public schools, while Hispanic students account for 31 percent, white students 28 percent, black students 22 percent and multiracial students 5 percent.
As the selection process changed, more black, Latino and economically disadvantaged students were tapped for the magnet programs. But the largest groups in 2018 were white students, at 39 percent of those invited to take spots, and Asian American students, at 25 percent, school system data show.
School officials said the previous selection process was parent-driven and relied on applications. The new system starts with universal screening — meaning that 8,164 fifth-graders were considered for 2018-2019.
“It elevated a lot more students across the district that we need to be thinking about as we provide enrichment and acceleration opportunities,” Maria Navarro, the system’s chief academic officer, said.
Roughly 4,000 students were tapped to take a cognitive skills assessment, and a computer analysis factored in whether students had peer groups at their home schools, officials said. Ultimately, a review committee rated about 1,000 students on assessment results, classroom grades and other testing data.
They did not know students’ names, races or ethnicities, according to Turner — but had information about gender and whether students were English-language learners, involved in special education or from low-income families.
The school system said it has tried to accommodate more top-tier students by adding higher-level classes at middle schools this year.
But some parents say that expansion was too limited. There are no advanced or accelerated English or science offerings, and while many schools offer a new social studies course — modeled after one in a magnet program — math choices have not changed much, they contend.
“Parents would be happier if there was real enrichment programming in local schools and if the process was transparent, clear and not biased,” said Evelyn Chung, a mother of two who has been active on issues affecting Asian Americans. “But [the school system] keeps dismissing people’s concerns.”
Chung said she wishes that Asian American, black and Latino parents could work together with school officials. “Everyone has the same issues at heart, which is making sure that highly able students have their needs met,” she said.
Navarro, the chief academic officer, said the school system has been looking at practices used by other school systems.
“We had an imperfect process and we have a not-so-perfect process now,” she said, adding that complaints about a lack of transparency show the need for more community engagement. “But we are moving to look at every single student, which is an important piece in our accountability to respond to the needs of every single student.”
Michelle Gluck, president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said that while she agrees there has been a lack of transparency about the selection process, the declining number of Asian American students invited, by itself, does not prove discrimination.
“The pool of students considered under the application system was disproportionately Asian because Asian students historically applied at much higher percentages compared to other demographic groups,” she said.
Jonathan Plucker, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has met with and studied the school system, described Montgomery County’s efforts as laudable, saying the system went beyond just enrolling more disadvantaged students in magnet programs and looked to expand advanced learning options districtwide.
“There have been lots of growing pains, which is to be expected with such an ambitious overhaul,” he said. “But I’m optimistic that the changes, which are still being implemented, will bear fruit for the district and its students and families.”
Anantham, the father from Bethesda, who has a son in a magnet program, said he welcomed federal scrutiny of the issue. “Let someone look at the data and see what’s happening,” he said.
He argues the school system should eliminate the peer-group rule or provide magnet-level classes in math, English, social studies and science in every county middle school.
Anantham said he supports affirmative action — an important way to account for injustices against people of color in the United States, he said — but objects to a selection process that he feels tilts against Asian American students.
“In what world do white Americans need affirmative action relative to Asian Americans?” he asked.