Specialized High Schools to Black Students: Maybe Next Year

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

In response to the latest weak figures on admission rates for black and Latino students entering the city’s most elite high schools, New Yorkers were offered a familiar refrain: The city is committed to fostering diversity.

It may well be, but that assertion is beginning to sound superficial.

That’s because once again, fewer black and Latino students will enter the city’s eight specialized high schools compared to the year before. The downward trend in admissions only serves to highlight the slow progress being made towards the adoption of a fairer and more effective method to evaluate students seeking admission to the city’s best high schools. Reforms both the mayor and schools chancellor have stated they support and want to see happen, but to date have not materialized.   

Truth be told, the mayor has the power to change admissions criteria at five of the eight specialized high schools with stroke of a pen. Why he has chosen not to exercise this authority suggests the mayor is still grappling with how best to keep a campaign pledge to increase diversity at these schools without inviting backlash from groups who want to preserve them as is.

Debating the merits of a Single Test

For years now, the use of a single test, the SHSAT, to determine admissions into the city’s eight specialized high schools has been a hotly debated issue in the city. Defenders of the current exam generally argue that it is the only objective way to assess students based solely on their ability, and to preserve high standards and rigor in the system. On the other hand, opponents of the single-test method (I include myself among them), argue that it favors students with the resources to pay for expensive test-prep, and are not accurate predictors of student achievement or performance.

What is not up for debate or in dispute, is the fact that the current admissions policy has had a particularly devastating impact on black and Latino students.

Case in point. Last fall about 27,000 students (of which about 44 percent were black and Latino) took the SHSAT. They were vying for 5,106 open seats. Of that number, 530 black and Latino students were admitted. Nearly 75 percent of the city’s public school students are black and Latino, yet these youth make up less than 11 percent of those offered seats in the specialized high schools.

For example, Stuyvesant High School admitted only nine black students in 2016, out of 950 slots it offered to students of other races. Last year the school admitted 10 black students. Not surprisingly, the city reported that the overall number of black and Latino students taking the entrance exam has also declined.

An alternative to the current admissions policy

To stem the decline in black and Latino student admissions to the city’s specialized high schools, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) is proposing that New York spend funds to bring test prep, tutoring and other enrichment programs to underrepresented middle schools.  

This proposal may make the IDC look good, but it will do nothing to change outcomes for our students. If the city is serious about increasing the representation of qualified black and Latino students in our premier high schools, it needs to make changes to the test regime itself.  

Last year, CSS conducted an empirical analysis of data to find a solution to the SHS debate that could potentially satisfy both sides. From our findings, we came up with recommendations on how the city could improve the admissions process, double the number of black and Latino students, and increase standards of achievement at specialized high schools.

We proposed 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 approach in effect doubles the number 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.

Whether it’s the CSS proposal or some alternative approach featuring multiple measures of merit, the mayor must act. In a city that prides itself on racial diversity our specialized high schools stand in stark contrast to that image. And this is happening on the mayor’s watch.   

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