As the school year starts, one issue that I can barely contain my outrage over is the paltry number of black and Latino students entering our city's specialized high schools. Of the 952 students admitted to Stuyvesant this year only seven were black. At Brooklyn Tech only 257 black and Latino students were admitted out of an entering class of 1,844. For practical purposes, the city has expanded its portfolio of elite high schools over the last ten years while reducing the number of black and Latino students who attend them.
Black and Latino students are the overwhelming majority (72 percent) of public high school students, and as such, they should be the barometer by which we measure the success of our schools. Are we getting more of them into the institutions that will catapult them to success? We are not, despite all our claims of progress.
So what's keeping black and Latino students out of the specialized high schools? It's this one specific test that the city uses for the specialized high schools, the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, which is completely unfair. Let me explain.
Every student in New York City middle schools takes annual state math and reading exams. Schools spend considerable time preparing their students for these tests, and the results are the basis for understanding student proficiency in these areas. There has been debate about the content of and emphasis on these tests, but I will note that there are some inherently fair aspects to these exams: everyone studies for them in school, and they are explicitly designed to assess what students are supposed to know in each grade.
Whether you go to a public school in a wealthy or poor neighborhood, your teachers are going to be working with you to prepare for these exams. Your principal will be committing resources to support students who need more help, because her school is judged on how students perform on these tests. So, while we may debate these exams’ role in our school system, we can admit that they do have some aspects of fairness. Every student gets supported to take them, and they are designed to assess what students are learning in school. So if you go to school, which everyone does, you get a pretty fair shot to pass them.
These two key features of fairness are completely lacking from the SHSAT. First, preparation for the exam takes place outside the school day—students need to seek SHSAT test prep on their own. This gives an advantage to students whose families can afford test prep or tutoring, which can easily cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. So, a good student, working hard in school, but who cannot afford test prep programs outside of school, is at a disadvantage.
Second, the NYCDOE has never shown that the content on the SHSAT is connected to what students are learning in middle school. There is not even a study to show that the SHSAT does anything other than separate students based on how much money their parents make, or what neighborhood they are from.
I’ve got some more bad news: my staff has begun to examine the distribution of results on middle school reading and math exams and we are beginning to believe that many students who perform well on the SHSAT do not meet high levels of proficiency on regular reading and math exams. How could this be? Well, the SHSAT is a separate, unvalidated test, and it can be gamed. In fact, an entire industry of businesses now exists to help students pass this test. Not to increase their academic ability, mind you—just to pass this one test.
So what’s the solution? The Mayor and the NYCDOE need to make an immediate public commitment to developing a fairer process for admissions into the specialized high schools. Let’s start with existing exams for which all students study, which are clearly fairer than the SHSAT. What if we allowed all students whose performance on reading and math exams was in the top two percent of their middle schools to gain admission into a specialized high school? My staff tells me that this would take up only about 15 percent of all specialized high school seats, but get us as many black and Hispanic students as we currently have. The remaining 85 percent of students could be added through rank order of reading and math scores, use of grades, or through an improved and validated SHSAT. In fact, even if we just held our noses and used the existing SHSAT for the remaining 85 percent of slots, we’d have double the number of black and Latino students as we do now!
Critics argue that any reform is watering down standards, but that is nonsense. Anyone who does not want to reward the top two percent of students is misunderstanding why we have specialized schools in the first place. These high schools should be trampolines, where high achievers can go even higher, not more perpetuators of the inequality that we see every day.