Elite Public Schools Exclude Children of Color

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

The grossest forms of racism and economic discrimination in New York City take place in the “elite” sectors of our public education system, running the gamut from the “gifted and talented” kindergarten programs which systematically exclude black and Latino 4 year-olds to the elite public high schools such as Stuyvesant where, in a student body of 3,300 young people, only 40 are black.

In each case, the disparate admissions of blacks and Latinos are driven by the use of a single test that has never been validated as predicting success in school.  No other factors are allowed to count.  Teacher assessments, academic achievement, or the fact you come from an economically distressed household or community – none of these matters.

Test Prep Industry

This situation is made much worse by the emergence of an entire “test prep” industry that is having a profound impact on test results while generating many millions in profits.  Test prep originally just focused on college and graduate school admission, but it now has spread to preparation for the city’s Specialized High School admissions test and even for admission to the city’s “gifted and talented” kindergarten program.  The costs for taking these prep courses are staggering, well outside the reach of low-income New Yorkers. 

We called a few of these test prep companies to get approximate costs: $1,350 for prepping a 4 year-old to take the “gifted and talented” test, and $1,500 and more for the Specialized High School admissions test.  When the Community Service Society (CSS) surveyed New Yorkers earlier this year for our annual Unheard Third report, half of low-income respondents said they have less than $500 in total savings and half living in unassisted housing report spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent alone.  For these families, the virtual impossibility of spending over $1,000 on getting one’s 4 year-old ready for his or her gifted and talented test is patently obvious. 

The impact on the racial - and I assume the economic - composition of the Gifted and Talented program is made plain in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  The city reported that only 29 percent of students in these elite kindergarten programs were black and Hispanic, even though they make up two-thirds of the overall elementary school population.  Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott response was “just because they don’t qualify for gifted and talented, doesn’t mean they’re not getting a high-quality education.”  Really?  In New York City’s public schools?  Once again we seem to be slipping into an educational system supported by taxpayer dollars which favors those with the most resources.

In September of last year, CSS joined with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, and a host of education-focused groups in filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.  We challenged the city’s use of a single test that has never been validated as a predictor of academic success to determine admission to New York’s elite Specialized High Schools because this admissions process works to exclude black and Latino students.  This filing was met with outright hostility by Mayor Bloomberg.

Problem Getting Worse

On a recent Friday afternoon, long after the daily newspapers had been printed, the city revealed that the schools problem hadn’t improved but, in fact, has become substantially worse.  Of the 5,229 students accepted to the city’s eight Specialized High Schools this year, only 618 were black or Hispanic, a decline of nearly 16 percent in one year alone.

To use scarce public resources to reinforce unequal access to the best in public education seems a throwback to South African apartheid, not something we should strive for in this, the most racially diverse city in the world.  We are creating a dual system of education which leads directly to a dual society.

The test prep regime and its results have morphed into a matter of economic discrimination as well.  It is evident that both of these test-centric admissions programs significantly advantage young people whose parents can afford the cramming programs that give them an overwhelming edge in scoring well on the standardized admission tests. 

In the last decade, New York reached the highest level of income inequality of any city in the nation.  It seems almost criminal to contribute to that problem by denying New Yorkers of limited means – many of whom are black or Latino – access to the best our public education system has to offer.

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