There is a major debate taking place right now in New York City now regarding the process currently used to admit students to the City’s elite specialized high schools (most notably Stuyvesant High School, located in TriBeCa). For the last 30+ years, there has only been one factor used to determine admission to these schools: the Specialized High School Admissions Test (“SHSAT”), a solitary, three-hour test.
Now, the SHSAT is under attack. Critics have long maintained that the test is unfair to minorities, and those advocates for change recently gained a new ally in Mayor DeBlasio. DeBlasio has promised to do away with the SHSAT, adding his political capital to the already existing efforts of the United Federation of Teachers, the NAACP, and others. Thanks to this momentum, there is now legislation before state lawmakers in Albany seeking to change the process (S.7738/A.9979), as well as a resolution before the New York City Council urging those lawmakers to pass that legislation. Proponents of the status quo, on the other hand, insist that a test is fair, color-blind, and objective and that there is no alternative to the test which would be fair or practicable.
As a lifelong resident of New York City and an alumnus of Stuyvesant High School myself, this is an issue that is near and dear to me. For many years I have been party to the debate, sought out opinions, and heard ideas about how best to resolve the problems. One proposal stands head and shoulders above the rest, and I believe 1) addresses the problems and 2) keeps the SHSAT a continued unbiased measure of merit. So here is my proposed solution: in addition to the exam, you set aside a select number of seats for students who finish in the top five of their Junior High School classes and who take the exam and who score above a certain, slightly lower, cutoff.
The Existing Racial Disparity
To say that minority children in NYC do not do well on the SHSAT would be an understatement, and it’s a problem that’s getting worse with each passing year. This year continued the trend, with the shocking news that only seven black students were offered seats at Stuyvesant in this year’s 952 seat freshman class.
Together, Black and hispanic students comprise less than five percent of the students enrolled at Stuyvesant, a number completely disproportionate given that Black and hispanic students comprise over 70 percent of the New York City public school student body. On the other side of the spectrum, Asians earn 72.5 percent of the seats at Stuyvesant despite comprising only 13.7 percent of the city’s public school population.
This incredible disparity provides the philosophical underpinning of the present debate. Mayor DeBlasio recently stated that “this is a city blessed with such diversity. Our schools, especially our particularly exceptional schools, need to reflect that diversity.” I agree.
Those who support the status quo of maintaining the SHSAT cite numerous factors, but above all, maintain that a test is the only truly meritorious and unbiased way of determining who gets offered a seat to the specialized high schools. In a letter to the New York State Legislature, the Alumni Board of the Bronx High School of Science wrote as follows:
“We stand for an admissions process that is a pure meritocracy, with one standard that is transparent and incorruptible. Preserving the objectivity of the admissions process is necessary to maintain the high educational standards of the specialized schools.”
Although detractors of the SHSAT often argue that a single test cannot be considered a definitive measure of a student’s knowledge, I don’t believe that proponents of the SHSAT believe that it must be a perfect measure in order to be better than the alternatives. The idea of there being a color-blind, transparent and unbiased exam is awfully hard to impeach.
Indeed, the general population has overwhelmingly supported the SHSAT (see the poll below, with 91% of respondents to a WSJ.com poll voting against changes to the current process). This support for the status quo has manifested itself in the lack of support in Albany, where time after time, efforts to abolish the SHSAT have failed, as well as more recent efforts through social media to try and persuade legislators to resist the political pressure to make the change. The Don’t Abolish SHSAT page on Facebook is one such community, and presently has a Change.org petition with almost 5,000 supporters.
Nonetheless, in the face of overall public disapproval, the debate rages on. In championing a more comprehensive admissions process, Mayor DeBlasio recently stated:
“’I do not believe a single test should be determinative, particularly for something that is as life-changing for so many young people,’ de Blasio, who would need to persuade the state Legislature to amend the law, said last week. ‘We have to determine what combination of measures will be fair.’”
Fair. But really, what is fair? And to whom? Is a blind test fair because the test itself doesn’t discriminate? Or is it unfair because of the discriminatory effect that it has due to all of the societal factors that the children face before they ever sit down for the test, factors which manifest themselves as early as first grade? How can the test be unfair when Asians perform so well on it, despite the fact that they have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New York at 29% (compared to 26% of Hispanics, 23% of blacks and 14% of whites)? No matter which way you frame the question – the current proposal would be complete disasters for NYC public schools.
The Current Proposal For Change Is Sorely Inadequate
The current proposal would require that the City Board establish procedures which take into account:
“MULTIPLE MEASURES OF STUDENT MERIT INCLUDING THE GRADE POINT AVERAGES OF APPLICANTS, SCHOOL ATTENDANCE RECORDS, SCHOOL ADMISSION TEST SCORES, AND STATE TEST SCORES.”
Proponents of this change hope that the “multiple measures” approach will lead to a more racially diverse student body at the specialized high schools while not compromising the integrity of the admissions process or the high quality of the academics – unfortunately, they fail on all three accounts.
At it’s core, the problem with the demographics at Stuyvesant is merely the symptom of a floundering school system, and changing the admission standards at Stuyvesant and the other specialized high school will do nothing to change the endemic problems faces by New York City Public School children. Other proposals are even worse (like shutting down Stuyvesant and other elite high schools altogether).
Indeed, getting rid of Stuyvesant, or diluting its academic standards under the pretense of a “multiple measues” admission approach will simply deprive the best and brightest students in NYC the ability to reach their full potential. On that topic, Chester E. Finn, the former United States Assistant Secretary of Education, has released a new book called “What Lies Ahead“, which talks about the failure of the American school systems to educate our most gifted children. In one excerpt, he writes:
“In Ohio alone, some 250,000 current pupils … have been identified as “gifted” … yet barely one-fifth of those youngsters actually receive “gifted education services” from their schools.
Imagine the outcry across the land if just one in five children identified as “disabled” was receiving “special education services” from his school! yet gifted youngsters are widely neglected[,] because they’re already above the proficient bar in academic achievement at a time when most federal and state policies are fixed on boosting low achievers over that bar[.] This neglect isn’t just a matter of fairness and equal opportunity for kids. It’s also a matter of long-term societal well-being[.]”
Dr. Finn is correct, as well, when he says that “the most apt to be neglected are those who are smart but poor … [as] upper-middle-class families with educated parents … do an acceptable job of steering their high ability daughters and sons through the education maze.” It is the smart but poor kids who suffer the most from an inadequate public school system.
Although there is a racial disparity at Stuyvesant, it is not the result of the SHSAT. As the New York Post opined recently, a more holistic admissions process would actually put poorer kids at an even larger disadvantage than they currently are:
“It’s not affluent whites, but rather the city’s burgeoning population of Asian-American immigrants — a group that, despite its successes, remains disproportionately poor and working-class — whose children have aced the exam in overwhelming numbers . . . Ironically, the more “holistic” and subjective admissions criteria that de Blasio and the NAACP favor would be much more likely to benefit children of the city’s professional elite than African-American and Latino applicants — while penalizing lower-middle-class Asian-American kids like Ting. The result would not be a specialized high school student body that “looks like New York,” but rather one that looks more like Bill de Blasio’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn.”
Stuyvesant is not the wealthy enclave of wealthy elites that many would have you think that it is. Indeed, at present, at least 45% of the students in the specialized high schools come from low-income families, according to the city. The Stuyvesant Spectator recently reported that some three-quarters of the students at Stuyvesant are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Furthermore, it is self-evident that a more holistic process would actually benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor:
“De Blasio suggested, for example, that a student’s extracurricular activities should be one of the selection factors. But as a past president of the Stuyvesant Parents Association noted, ‘the kids that have the best résumés in seventh and eighth grades have money.’”
Wealthier children perform better in school, have the time and energy for more extracurricular activities, and have parents who are, overall, more engaged in their education than poorer children. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explained that the majority of the difference in achievement between rich and poor children can be explained by the “accumulative advantage” gained by the wealthier children during the summer time, as children of all socioeconomic backgrounds tend to learn almost the same amount during the school year. Indeed, a quick-fix of changing demographics at the specialized schools may serve to mask the real problems- and delay reform at the early developmental, Pre-K, and elementary school levels where the gaps are formed.
Alina Adams over at Raising Kvell stated it succinctly when she said:
The SHSAT is not the problem. It is, instead, a symptom of the genuine problem, which is the inferior education offered to the majority of NYC’s children. Many of whom are Black and Hispanic. The SHSAT is a diagnostic, the canary in the coal mine. Get rid of it, and the real problem–insufficient standards across the board–becomes much easier to hide.
So what exactly would a change to the SHSAT do to promote “fairness”? Who would be the beneficiary of this new “fair” process forced upon Stuyvesant and the other specialized high schools? What would the benefit be of increasing black and latino enrollment, if those additional children enrolled are wealthy?And who would suffer? How do we address the drastic and growing gap between the races at the specialized high schools even if the underlying problem is intractable?
Both Sides Agree That We Should Aspire to Better
On the bright side, everyone involved in this debate seems to have the same priorities — a desire to provide a fair way for the best and brightest to earn access to the best education available.
Make no mistake about it – the problems leading to the racial disparities as is deep, and broad, and seemingly intractable:
After all, other minorities pass. Asians account for half the students at our specialized high schools, more than triple their population. Which suggests that instead of seeking to lower the bar for all, pols ought to be looking to raise black and Latino achievement.
In fact, just as startling as the admissions statistics are the testing statistics. Despite comprising over 70% of the NYC student body, black and latino students comprise only 43% of the students that even take the SHSAT:
Where are the parents? Where are the school administrators? And why is nobody talking about this aspect of the problem?
What proponents of the SHSAT (and the majority of parents and alumni) want is a fair solution which addresses the racial disparities, and provides opportunities fairly to students of all backgrounds, without compromising the integrity of the admissions process or the school itself. Simply put, politicians should not be running the schools.
We have a national education crisis in education. Is the solution to dismantle one of the few places where students go and actually succeed? Is the solution to divide up the very small pieces of the pie slightly differently — or should we make more pie?
The Solution is to Keep the SHSAT While Earmarking A Certain Number of Seats By School District
The first thing we need to do is abandon the idea that there is some sort of platonic, universal “fairness” that can be achieved. There isn’t. For poor kids, “fairness” is the equal opportunity to attend these schools despite their socioeconomic limitations. For rich kids, “fairness” is the ability to rely on their advantages to do so. Doesn’t every parent aspire to succeed so that their children can have every advantage? How would it be “fair” to remove those hard-earned benefits?
I’ve learned over the years that there is no single factor which can best predict success in academics and in your career. It is not enough to be smart, it is not enough to work hard. One must be both – not necessarily in equal parts – but both are necessary elements. So here is my proposed solution: in addition to the exam, you set aside a select number of seats for students who finish in the top five of their Junior High School classes and who take the exam and who score above a certain, slightly lower, cutoff.
Setting aside seats based on school districts/geography, while not abandoning the concept of the high-achievement on the SHSAT being a central tenet, will serve to diversify the student body while maintaining the fundamental concept of merit, and do so while avoiding bureaucratic and potentially even more biased “multiple measures”.
I wish I could claim credit for this idea, but in writing this article, I discovered that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (“LDF”) suggested something similar in their 2012 lawsuit:
“The LDF also called for guaranteed admission for valedictorians and salutatorians, and perhaps other top students, at each public middle school program — a proposal that sounds modest but would actually require a set-aside of at least 1,000 of the 3,800 seats in each class.”
There are 54 public middle schools in New York City. Offering admission to five students from each of those schools, automatically, provided that that they score well enough on the test, results in a maximum of 270 worthy admissions. In reality, however, the set-aside will be much smaller than that. Many of the students in the top five of their classes will score well enough to gain admission regardless of their score on the SHSAT, many other students will not take the SHSAT, and many other students will fail to reach even the modified SHSAT cutoff.
Being smart is not enough, because even the smartest minds, should they have no drive or desire to succeed, will rot on the vine at a place like Stuyvesant. On the other hand, being a hard worker is also not enough, as even the most diligent child will not be able to keep up with the brightest in the city with effort alone. This is why, should admission standards be changed at all, that a hybrid (class rank + test score) would be the only way to ensure that the new student will be able to keep up.
Most of the criteria in the “multiple measures” methods favor the wealthy, like attendance, extracurriculars, interviews, and even GPA. Only a geographic reward to high achievers in each district can be as blindly meritorious as an exam. By doing it like this, and keeping the SHSAT as part of a modified admissions process, the specialized high schools can maintain their commitment to serving the best and brightest.
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Brian Mangan is an attorney living in New York City and an alumnus of Stuyvesant High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @brianpmangan.