Using newly available data, the Community Service Society of New York (CSS) has released a proposal with recommendations for how the mayor and city leaders can create an improved admissions process for the city’s elite Specialized High Schools. A simulation of the CSS proposal would double the number of black and Latino students at these schools, while simultaneously increasing standards of achievement.
The new report, “The Specialized High School Admissions Debate: Moving from Rhetoric to a Research-Based Solution,” analyzes newly available data about students who apply to New York City’s eight Specialized High Schools (SHS). It examines this data in the context of the SHS debate, which has been polarized with reform advocates on one side, calling for more diversity in these schools, against reform opponents, who fear that changes in admissions policies will dilute standards and quality. The report finds common ground between the two sides by using objective measures that offer the top students from schools across the city with the opportunity to attend one of these elite high schools.
The report urges the mayor of New York City to use his authority to immediately change the admissions policy for the five newest Specialized High Schools and join community advocates in calling upon state lawmakers to help change the admissions policy at the three oldest schools—Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech.
“Amid extraordinary inequality in New York City, it’s incumbent on the mayor to level the playing field and reform the admissions process immediately,” said David R. Jones, CSS President and CEO. “This leadership will demonstrate that the mayor is serious about fulfilling the city’s obligation to its students in helping to equalize opportunity instead of perpetuating inequality.”
Currently, admission into Specialized High Schools, which are considered some of the most prestigious public high schools in the country, is based exclusively on the results of a single test, known as the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), which education experts agree is arbitrary, inaccurate, and an unfair measure of merit. This is the only such policy in the country. The New York City Department of Education has admitted that it has never studied the SHSAT to determine whether it predicts success in the Specialized High Schools and it has yet to produce any evidence at all on predictive validity.
The current admissions policy has a particularly devastating impact on black and Latino students who have low admissions rates. Of the nearly 12,000 black and Latino students who took the Fall 2012 SHSAT exam, just over 600 were offered admission to any of the high schools. Stuyvesant High School offered admission to only nine black students out of an incoming class of nearly 1,000 students.
These disparities also play out at the school level, where fewer than five percent of middle schools receive nearly 50 percent of the offers, and forty percent of the schools receive no offers whatsoever. Most of the middle schools that do receive SHS offers already screen for admission between ages four and nine, meaning that vast amounts of students are largely tracked out of a pathway to the Specialized High Schools at extremely young ages.
To address this unfairness, the CSS study proposes that the NYCDOE replace the SHSAT with existing state English Language Arts (ELA) and Math exams, which are taken and prepared for by all students, unlike the SHSAT. The proposal would then offer admission to students whose state exam scores fall within the top three percent of their middle school, assuming those students also meet citywide standards of high performance. Under this scenario, more than 90 percent of SHS offers would be determined, as they are now, through citywide rank order. The CSS proposal essentially changes approximately nine percent of the offer pool, replacing those students who score well on the SHSAT despite lower state exam scores, with the highest achievers from middle schools across the city.
This Top Three Percent Plan is similar to the Top 10 Percent plan employed by the University of Texas with great success. In Texas, high school students who finish in the top of their class are guaranteed admission to a state four-year college, a policy that has been credited with incentivizing student achievement and increasing diversity. Here in New York City, the Top Three Percent Plan’s change of just nine percent of the population receiving offers would double the numbers of black and Latino students at the SHS. At the same time, dozens of schools and communities that receive no offers, even for their very best students, would now have representation in the SHS offer pool.
“There is no clearer ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than the one told by admissions results at the Specialized High Schools,” said Lazar Treschan, author of the report and Director of Youth Policy at CSS. “Over two hundred middle schools located in the city’s poorest communities receive no offers to Specialized High Schools; it is inconceivable that they are home to no worthy students. Our proposal increases representation at the Specialized High Schools without lowering standards.”
Using empirical analysis of student data, the CSS proposal would provide opportunity to middle school valedictorians and salutatorians from across New York City. The proposed changes would allow the city to take corrective action before a finding of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which launched a federal civil rights investigation into the admissions policy after a complaint filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Latino Justice (Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund), and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College on behalf of CSS and ten other community organizations.
The report is released just days after nearly 30,000 eight graders completed the SHSAT exam and amidst emerging consensus about the need to integrate a school system that is increasingly segregated.