As the school year starts, we should all be concerned over the paltry number of black and Latino students entering our city's specialized high schools. 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. However, in the 2013-14 school year Latinos were 7.2 percent and blacks were 5.6 percent of students at the eight elite high schools.
So what's keeping black and Latino students out of the specialized high schools? The answer is the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, which is an unfair measure of academic talent. 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. Every student gets supported to take the exams, 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.
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.
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.